Athletics is up and running at UC Merced

May 2, 2009 

Four years ago UC Merced senior Michael Oliveira spent many of his Saturday nights working at the campus library.

With a fledgling student body and the fire exit stairs as the only way to enter the building, those nights were often spent just hanging out with other student workers.

One night Oliveira and Ben Goodhue started talking about their love of baseball.

"We just pitched around the idea of starting a baseball program here," Oliveira said.

As the weeks progressed, the young men drafted increasingly intricate plans to bring the national pastime to campus.

Two weeks ago, with tiny stars beginning to poke through a clear night sky reminiscent of those spent working on team plans in the library, Oliveira was announced as the winner of the campus' first male athlete of the year award.

"Really? Me?" he asked the person seated next to him, before walking to a lectern in front of several dozen graduating seniors to collect his award.

"He's a solid baseball player who's also focused on academics," said David Dunham, UC Merced's director of recreation and athletics. "Being a great athlete is not just about competing in sports -- you must also be great in the classroom and in the community."

Despite his surprise at the awards ceremony, such "wins" are no rare occurrence in Oliveira's life at UC Merced.

In his four years on the campus, the 22-year-old Hilmar native has won second place in a school research competition, was admitted to a prestigious internship program that took him to two other UC campuses and was recently admitted to a Ph.D. program at UC Riverside.

Oliveira is also president of the newly formed Biomedical Engineering Society on campus.

"He is very hard-working," Goodhue said. "Things kept getting busier and busier, but he always managed to stay on top of it."

On any given day, Oliveira, a bioengineering major, is as likely to trade a player in his fantasy baseball league as he is to conduct an experiment in tissue engineering at a campus laboratory.

The timing of UC Merced's opening was "pretty perfect," said Oliveira, who wanted to stay close to home to save money. He lived off campus his freshman year, at a property his family owned in Merced. During his sophomore year, Goodhue moved in.

Also during his sophomore year, Oliveira landed a spot in the systemwide "UC Leads" internship program. The two-year program allows students to spend their summers studying at other UC campuses. In the summer before his junior year, Oliveira went to UCSF and conducted research in radiology and neuro-imaging. The next summer he went to UC San Diego to study cell activity in the central nervous system.

"I absolutely loved living in San Francisco and San Diego," Oliveira said. "They were some of the greatest summers I ever had."

During the year, Oliveira spent his time doing research in Kara McCloskey's lab at UC Merced.

McCloskey characterized Oliveira as intelligent and well organized. She wrote a reference letter for him when he applied to a Ph.D. program in bioengineering at UC Riverside.

Oliveira was accepted -- and he got a fellowship to defray the cost of attendance.

"It will be a nice change of scenery," Oliveira said. "I have been in the Central Valley for 22 years."

More than anything else, Oliveira is excited to begin life as a scientist. His ultimate goal is to teach at a university and develop a cure for degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease. Of course, a Nobel Prize would be welcome, too. "That would be the ultimate," he said.

Oliveira remembers a lot about ways the campus has changed from the day the landscaping went in on the quad, to how much busier the library became after the 2005 freshmen moved off campus and needed somewhere to hang out between classes.

"I can't believe it," he said. "It is kind of weird how much campus has grown in three years."

Of all the memories he stores away, one carries special meaning: the day the UC Merced baseball team recorded the school's first ever intercollegiate athletic win.

And they did it twice. In a doubleheader against Humboldt State on their turf in Arcata.

Some 300 students on campus participate in 10 club sports teams, Dunham said.

The baseball team competes in the Southern Pacific Northern Conference of the National Club Baseball Association.

The Bobcats' first win came in April 2007. After driving late into the night for a Saturday doubleheader, the boys roared to a victory in their 9 a.m. first game.

"We were ecstatic," Oliveira recalled. "We didn't even know what to do with ourselves."

They went on to win the second game of the day, but fell to Humboldt on Sunday.

When they got back to campus, there wasn't much fanfare, Oliveira admitted.

"There was no parade like there should have been," he joked.

Maybe there'll be one if he wins that Nobel.

Reporter Danielle Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dgaines@mercedsun-star.com.