Don't be surprised if the Whittier College football team fights to the Finnish.
The Poets open the season Saturday at home against the University of San Diego and the team, expected to be a contender in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, is expected to have a distinct Finnish flavor.
First there's Coach Hugh Mendez, who spent the last two summers coaching in Finland's 10-team professional league. Mendez went out of curiosity in 1985 and liked it so much he returned this summer. He also found the Finns to be surprisingly good football players--good enough to win the recent Eurobowl competition among the champions of eight countries.
Then there are the three Finns whom Mendez brought back with him last week to enroll at Whittier. He said two will probably start.
Mendez, who has been at Whittier for 17 years, said American exchange students introduced football to Finland, which has had a pro league since 1979, and that the level of play is surprisingly good. He said the players are often bigger than those he deals with on the Division III level, and that even though they aren't allowed to play tackle football until their late teens, they are every bit as aggressive as their American counterparts.
Pro teams in Finland are allowed two American players, usually the quarterback and another key position, such as linebacker. "A lot of the players could play here in Division III, and a couple could play Division II," Mendez said.
Mendez's star was one of his former Whittier quarterbacks, Joey Jordan, who was the league's most valuable player in 1985 and Eurobowl MVP last month.
Finland's 10 pro teams are all coached by foreigners, about half of them coaches at California schools. Mendez, who gets the use of an apartment, plane fare and expenses but no salary, lived in Tikkurila outside Helsinki.
Mendez said the level of coaching has made the Finnish game relatively sophisticated, with styles similar to U.S. teams. "On my team, probably 6 out of 42 spoke fluent English, others spoke some, others spoke none. Yet they pick up the plays. We ran eight or nine formations. I ran multiple sets," he said.
In the Eurobowl, sponsored in part by the National Football League, Mendez's team defeated Italy for the title, 20-6. He won earlier games by scores of 61-0 and 67-6.
While in Finland, he got the idea of a reverse exchange, bringing players back with him. And it probably won't hurt his team. Wide receiver Harri Kaasinen, for instance, is 6 feet 2 inches and 205 pounds. Fullback Jari Sirkia is 6-3, 250. They were enrolled in school last week. The third player, center Vela-Pekka Nyykist, 6-2 and 235, is expected this week.
Mendez said the transfer idea appealed to the players and was popular in Finland as well, receiving big play in the media. "I enjoyed it over there," he said. "I thought of the idea of trying to interest kids in Whittier. They're good players, good students and it was really big news in Finland that they were coming over. California appealed (to the players). They were ready to come. I think it will be a great cultural experience, and an educational experience."
Will it start a trend?
"I hope so," Mendez said. "That's what I'm trying to start. This is a first. Hopefully, it works."
He might be willing to bet a couple of Finns on it.
Cal Baptist College in Riverside and Christ College of Irvine have joined the Golden State Athletic Conference. The new conference, which operates in the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics, was formed last winter by Azusa Pacific, Cal Lutheran, Fresno Pacific, Point Loma Nazarene, Southern California College and Westmont.
Cal Baptist and Christ College will become eligible for conference championships and individual honors in a year.
Christ College competes in six men's and six women's sports. Cal Baptist has recently expanded its program to include baseball, softball and men's soccer to go with its established sports, men's and women's basketball and women's volleyball.
Kevin Platt, a former All-American tennis player at Cal State Bakersfield, has been named the school's tennis coach. Platt replaces Kurt Nielsen, who resigned in June. Bakersfield also announced that Michael Rooney will be an assistant to basketball coach Jim Parks.
Vic Nicoles has resigned as gymnastics coach at Cal Poly Pomona. During his five years, Nicoles coached Jodi Mabb to a national championship in bars in 1982.
Sharon Peterson is the new women's volleyball coach at Azusa Pacific. She replaces Linda Wills, who resigned. Peterson was the coach at Colorado College for six years and made two postseason appearances during that time.
Kenneth T. Kelly is the new women's soccer coach at Occidental. Kelly was previously an administrator at USC and before that a star player at Westfield, Mass., State College.