The sign hanging in the Cal State Fullerton student food court isn't much, just a plain white rectangle bearing a simple message in blue block letters--"Congratulations Titan Soccer."
But it's there.
Saturday night's first-round NCAA soccer playoff game between Fullerton and the University of San Diego at Titan Stadium isn't expected to draw much, maybe 2,000, meaning 8,000 bleacher seats won't be occupied.
But it's there.
Joey Franchino is also there, and that may be the best gauge when it comes to measuring just how far these little steps have taken Fullerton's soccer program.
Franchino, a freshman midfielder who has played every minute of every match he has been eligible, is the type of player Fullerton Coach Al Mistri used to admire only from afar. Top 130 in the nation as a high schooler. Experienced on the junior international level. Invited to try out for the U.S. national under-21 team. A candidate for the 1996 Olympic Games.
In other words, too rich for Fullerton's blood.
Fullerton was the place you went if UCLA didn't want you. Or if you couldn't pass the admissions exam. Mistri's program was known in soccer circles as Cal State Hand-Me-Down. The Bruin Reserves. Can't make the grade in Westwood? Then you get relegated to the second division on the corner of State College and Nutwood.
But was before the 1993 Final Four convened in Davidson, N.C., last December.
Present and accounted for was Cal State Fullerton.
Conspicuous by its absence, UCLA.
Franchino, then a senior at Damien High School in La Verne, noticed.
"When I saw those guys on TV last year," Franchino says, "it was just, like, I wanted to be there. Do whatever it takes to get there."
At the time, St. Louis University, 10-time NCAA champion, was knocking on Franchino's door. Perennial West Coast contender Fresno State and Nevada Las Vegas offered scholarships. Santa Clara. UCLA, too.
"UCLA didn't talk to me till the end," Franchino says. "They came later. I told them I'd already made up my mind. I told them I was signing with Fullerton."
Franchino's letter of intent "represents the turnaround we've had here," according to Mistri.
"Joey is the first . . . I've got to be careful how I say this. OK, Eddie Soto (Fullerton's All-American forward) has received a lot of accolades, and he's done very well by our situation. But when the chips were down, a lot of universities did not want him, for whatever reason.
"UCLA had the chance to get him; he would've loved to have gone there, and they didn't want him. I think a number of other places, SMU and what not, could have gotten him, but they didn't go after him hard enough.
"Joey was highly sought after. I mean, Santa Clara, St. Louis, UCLA would've wanted him, up to the very end, and he opted to come here. That's a very strong statement right there. Up to the very last moment, when he signed the letter of intent, these other places would have loved to have him go there."
Mistri sounds as if he still can't believe it. What an embarrassment of riches this is--a second consecutive invitation to the NCAA tournament, a first NCAA playoff game at home, a top 15 national ranking . . . and Joey Franchino, to boot.
"I think we've finally arrived at the point where I believe we can be one of the top 10 programs in the nation constantly," Mistri says. "Getting players of Joey's caliber. The stadium. People finally getting behind the program. We're there. We're there."
And Franchino has become the symbol of the new status. \o7 Look what we got--it's a 1994 Franchino!\f7 Mistri nearly giggles as he ticks off the assorted features and options.
"Joey and Al Partida, who we got the year before, have been asked to participate in the Olympic tryouts," Mistri proudly reports. "Now, when you're \o7 asked\f7 to participate, it's somewhat different than going to try out, if you read between the lines.
"Timo Liekoski, the Olympic coach, came up to me and says, 'I want those two guys to come and try out.' That's what he told me, straight-forward."
Liekoski, and U.S. national coach Bora Milutinovic, spoke to Mistri after watching Fullerton upset top-ranked Indiana three weeks ago. The Titans trailed Indiana, 2-1, at halftime before Mistri assigned Franchino to Brian Maisonneuve, Indiana's All-American midfielder. Maisonneuve didn't score again--he barely managed another shot on goal--and Fullerton rallied to win in overtime, 3-2.
Mistri displays a 1994 college soccer player of the year ballot. His ballot. Highlighted in green marker is Mistri's selection: Brian Maisonneuve, Sr., Indiana.
"He's the best player I have seen, by far," Mistri declares, "and Joey marked him all half. Shut him down. Absolutely."
"All I did," Franchino says, "was stand him up and keep his back facing our goal. Because as soon as he turns and comes toward you, he's going to kill you. As long as I kept his back to our goal, he would have to play the ball back and outside the net."