UC Merced ready to launch intercollegiate sports -- almost

November 17, 2010 

If UC Merced women's club volleyball team's recent preseason record is any indication of how they'll fare next fall when they'll probably join the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, they're off to a good start.

Out of three games played, the Golden Bobcats beat one NAIA team and lost to two of the top-ranked NAIA teams, said Brigitte Mayes, a sophomore and team member.

"We're short, but scrappy. We are always going to get the ball up, and our defense is awesome," Mayes said. "Going varsity is a really big step for the school. If we play varsity, we are playing teams that play on TV."

The school plans to submit its application to join the NAIA in January. The NAIA is a highly regarded nationwide intercollegiate competitive organization consisting of 300 colleges, 25 conferences and 23 championships in 13 sports. Many observers say the NAIA and the NCAA's Division III have become the only places where true scholar-athletes still roam a campus.

By April, the league will let the school know if it has made the cut. If so, next fall UC Merced's women's volleyball and men's basketball will become the school's first intercollegiate athletic teams.

UC Merced would compete in the NAIA's California Pacific Conference. Some of the other member teams include Bethany University, California Maritime Academy, Menlo College, Holy Names University and Mills College.

David Dunham, UC Merced director of recreation and athletics, said he was confident the school will be accepted. The next step is to pass a student referendum that would increase students fees to pay for the intercollegiate athletics program.

The school's Athletic Advisory Committee recently e-mailed students a survey gauging student interest in the intercollegiate athletics program. The survey asked students what sports they would want to see on campus and if they would approve a fee increase to support athletics.

"If the data tell us students don't want to support athletics, then we will have to re-evaluate," Dunham said.

Heather Orrell, a UC Merced graduate students and member of the Athletic Advisory Committee, said athletics and academics go hand in hand. "To really go somewhere in life you really need some team support," she said. "There is a lot of student interest because (joining the league) gives (teams) credibility -- and that's what they are lacking."

Future sports that will be considered for NAIA are men's volleyball and women's basketball, Dunham added. Once the school improves its outdoor facilities, soccer and lacrosse will also be considered, Dunham added.

Joining the NAIA will help in recruiting athletes, Dunham said. The school actually doesn't offer scholarships, but school officials do look at student-athletes who have an interest in coming to UC Merced.

"(Students) see this as a great opportunity to play sports," Dunham said. "We're looking at folks who can make a difference on our teams. It's not much different from what other schools are doing except we don't have the scholarships."

Today, more than 200 students play sports at UC Merced. The school has 14 club teams that compete with teams from schools in club leagues. Some of the teams are archery, men's basketball, women's basketball, baseball, dance and martial arts.

As the school grows, the eventual plan for athletics is to join the National Collegiate Athletic Association in Division II. That would mean the school would play schools such as CSU Stanislaus and Chico State, Dunham added.

Joe Ortiz, a fifth-year engineering student and member of the men's club volleyball team, said playing sports has been one of his highlights in Merced. Ortiz will have graduated by the time men's volleyball makes it to the NAIA, but he'll be happy when it does.

"I'd be so proud knowing that I helped get them there. It would make me feel like I was part of the team," he said. "Hopefully, it will bring a spotlight to Merced. We're trying to hype up athletics. Hopefully, the community will see that and come to the campus to watch us."

Game on -- almost.

Reporter Jamie Oppenheim can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or joppenheim@mercedsun-star.com.

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