Warren puts substance violation in the past

By Walter Villa

Julia Warren had made a serious mistake, but she wasn’t going to compound it by lying.

Warren, who had led La Cueva (Albuquerque, N.M.) to a state final as a freshman and had attracted recruiting interest from volleyball powers such as Texas and Florida, was just days from starting her much-anticipated sophomore season.

Only 15 at the time, Warren had come home from a get-together with friends when her parents, Mark and Lissa, noticed her body language was off, and her demeanor was different.

They asked her “point blank” if she had used alcohol or any other substance, and she immediately confessed.

“I was raised to be strong and honest and to own up to my mistakes,” Warren said. “I knew I had messed up. My parents know me very well. They knew something was wrong.

“But I never thought about lying. That’s not how I was raised, and that’s not how I will raise my kids later in life.”

Peer pressure can be a powerful enemy, Warren learned. “For that one moment of weakness,” she said, “I was a follower.”

When she confessed, Warren said she and her parents immediately started crying. After a couple minutes, Warren asked her dad what was going to happen next.

“I think you know what you need to do,” he responded.

Making amends

An hour later, Warren was in the office of La Cueva coach Gregg Nunley.

“Gregg has been like my second dad,” she said. “He has invested so much energy in me, and he will always be in my life. Letting him down was what killed me the most.”

Mark Warren said the decision to admit the mistake was about much more than volleyball. It was about the difference between right and wrong, and it was about consequences.

In New Mexico high school sports, even one sip of alcohol by a student calls for a mandatory 45-day suspension from all extracurricular activities. That meant Warren could not play or practice with the team.

She couldn’t even attend the games as a fan.

“My team was so tight, and we had been so excited for the season,” Warren said. “But because of one split-second decision, the season was flipped.”

In the aftermath of the suspension, Lissa Warren -- who is an assistant coach on La Cueva’s volleyball team -- turned in her letter of resignation so she could spend more time with Julia. Nunley, though, convinced her to stay and honor her commitment to the team.

Meanwhile, Mark Warren called the 45 schools that had been recruiting his daughter -- some as early as her eighth-grade year -- to tell them what had happened. He wanted them to hear it from him instead of the rumor mill. All those schools, he said, understood the situation and continued to recruit her.

Mark Warren also resigned his post as an assistant girls’ basketball coach at St. Pius High (Albuquerque) so that he could pick up Julia after school each day and take her to a gym to train.

In addition to working out, Julia Warren also took the time to deliver handwritten letters of apology to each of her teammates as well as coaches and school administrators. Warren also focused on school and her church and spent time as a volunteer coach at her former middle school, Queen of Heaven.

It was obvious to those closest to her that Warren was sorry, but that didn’t make the situation any easier. Teammates were upset, rumors circulated and some people she thought were her friends abandoned her.

“I’m happy to say I have a lot of friends,” Warren said. “Some turned their backs on me and were rude. I did lose a couple of friends that I don’t talk to anymore. But I also gained new friends, people who said, ‘Wow, Julia, you confessed. I look up to you.’ “

Warren missed 90 percent of her sophomore season, returning for the stretch run, which included a loss in the state quarterfinals.

Deciding her future

A month after her sophomore season ended, Warren took an unofficial visit to the University of New Mexico, where she talked to the history professors and volleyball coaches. Warren has a 3.1 grade-point average and loves history and traveling. Her dream is to combine those passions with a career working overseas, perhaps in the Russian embassy.

When Warren returned home, she thought about it for two hours before announcing to her family that she was committing to UNM.

“I was surprised,” Lissa Warren said, “but also thrilled that we were going to have her near us.”

Initially, Warren had wanted to leave home for college, and perhaps it would have been easier to run away after her painful sophomore season.

But Warren had been a Lobos ball girl as a sixth- and seventh-grader, collecting autographs of all the UNM players. She fell in love with the idea of mentoring the girls who will be watching her at UNM.

“This is my opportunity to give back what everyone has invested in me,” Warren said.

Warren certainly lived up to expectations as a junior this past fall. The 6-foot-1 outside hitter was named New Mexico’s Gatorade Player of the Year, leading the state in kills (618) and digs (455) while posting a .445 hitting percentage.

She led La Cueva to the state semifinals and was one of 33 players nationwide invited to a USA Volleyball High Performance camp. Warren has also continued to do community service, working with Special Olympics, a homeless shelter and a literacy-outreach program.

Love and volleyball

Warren was born in Minot, North Dakota. Mark was working as an intelligence officer at Minot Air Force Base at the time, and -- with the wind chill -- it was 75 degrees below on the day Julia was brought home from the hospital.

But there is nothing cold about the Warren family.

Mark, who is 6-foot-10, was a two-time Division II All-American basketball player at Cal State San Bernardino. He tried out for the New York Knicks and played pro ball in Germany. He met Lissa at the training room at San Bernardino, where she was a 5-foot-9 All-Region volleyball standout.

In addition to Julia, 17, they have another daughter, Hannah, 13, and a son, Garrett, 11. Hannah plays volleyball and sings in the choir, and Garrett is all about basketball.

Julia Warren said it was especially crushing when she had to tell her siblings of her mistake.

“I wasn’t going to sugarcoat it -- I straight up told them what happened,” she said. “They were disappointed. They didn’t understand how their big sister who they look up to could make a mistake like that. Having them look at you with those eyes … It killed me inside.”

The important thing, Warren said, is how the situation was handled. She could have denied it -- but she didn’t. The family could have hid it -- but they didn’t.

And now, the girl who loves history knows that the incident is just that.

“A couple of months ago, it was a soft spot to talk about this,” she said. “But I’ve come to terms with it. I’ve had to regain people’s trust, and I’ve done everything to get back on track.

“Now I think this is part of the Julia Warren story. I talk about it so that little girls can see that if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”