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Recruits Wonder if Northridge's Division I Days Are Numbered

November 17, 1994|STEVE ELLING

The recruiting pitch contained all the usual elements. Verbal pomp and circumstance, crepe and bunting, all to sell prospective athletes on the successes of the school's athletic program.

First, regale them with stories from last year's cool road trips to big-time sites like Hawaii. Introduce them to a semi-celebrity player.

Close the deal. Kid, you can have all this and more.

Standard pitch, straight as a fastball, but with a different tag-line. Never before at Cal State Northridge has a coach's exit line been a mumbled . . . "I think. I hope. Well, maybe."

At Northridge, this is what it's come to for a handful of coaches who can't answer the simplest of follow-up questions from recruits: What's next for the Matador athletic program?

The NCAA's weeklong early signing period ended Wednesday and Northridge didn't exactly herniate the mailman. According to school officials, only one letter of intent is in hand.

The quandary started with last month's fee referendum, which was narrowly defeated by student vote. It would have generated millions for athletics and kept the school, which moved to Division I five years ago, in a state of ascent.

At best, athletics is now in a state of flux. Budget cuts loom and several programs are wondering if the other shoe is going to drop. Obviously, recruits are concerned.

"There isn't anybody out there right now, male or female, that would sign (in track) until the school makes a decision on where we're going," said Don Strametz, the school's longtime track coach.

The impact of the referendum's defeat is manifold, with aftershocks aplenty. Recruiting wasn't given much thought when the campaign was mounted, but it's definitely being addressed after the fact.

In a nutshell, the athletics department gambled. In order to impress upon voters the possible impact of the referendum's defeat, a worst-case scenario was mapped out with considerable hand-wringing.

Defeat meant the possible loss of scholarships and programs, such as track and football. If enough programs were lopped, the school was facing the unconscionable drop to Division II. Realistic threat or not--school officials say they will avoid the latter at all cost--it was mentioned as a possibility.

Red flags attract attention. Wouldn't you know it, recruits can read the papers, too. Some even heard the news through word of mouth, never known for its accuracy.

Strametz didn't bother sending out a single letter of intent and said things might be just as lean during the spring signing period, which begins in April.

"Right now, it's a disaster for everyone," he said. "Even programs you wouldn't think would be affected are being hurt."

Bingo. The softball team, as good as any Division I program around, lost a "major recruit" because of the budget problems, first-year Coach Janet Sherman said.

"There were rumors in some places that us going to Division II was already a done deal," she said.

Ever since the referendum failed four weeks ago, coaching track has been secondary to damage control for Strametz. The track network, you see, is unlike any other. Track folks are die-hard aficionados. There are few casual fans. Alas, the grapevine is abuzz with bad Northridge news.

Coaches from throughout the state did everything but send flowers to Strametz's funeral and ask if he'd updated his resume.

"I've had so many people call just to say, 'Sorry, try to make the best of it,' " Strametz said. "I keep telling them we're not dead yet."

Meanwhile, opposing coaches, fighting to land the same top recruits, keep using Northridge's predicament as leverage. With no answer regarding the school's direction expected until mid-December, the Matadors are losing ground.

Men's volleyball Coach John Price doesn't think the referendum defeat had any effect on his recruiting plans. Then again, he can't be sure.

This fall, Price made a serious run at one player and didn't land him. The day after the referendum was voted down, the player phoned Price to ask what was going on.

"With softball and men's volleyball, you have programs that are in the top four or five in the country right now," Price said. "You have to take advantage of that while you can. It doesn't always last forever.

"(Uncertainty) could kill our chances of staying there."

Sherman should be recruiting from a quantifiable position of strength. No Northridge program had a better season in 1993-94. The softball team was 52-10 and reached the championship game of the Women's College World Series. Played on television, even.

Yet several recruits brought the first-year coach's recruiting pitch to a halt with the simple question: "Where's your program gonna be in a couple of years, Division II?"

Sherman, an assistant at Northridge for the past five years, lost a top recruit--who signed with Cal State Fullerton--because of the questions surrounding Northridge's future commitment to athletics. The coach put the best spin possible on the situation.

"All I can do at this point is assure them we plan to stay Division I and that I haven't been told anything differently," she said.

Some recruits are buying. Some moved on to the next sales pitch.

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