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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Northridge Cuts Healing

Special Report: Four men's sports put on the chopping block a year ago are alive and well.

June 11, 1998|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — They are favorite activities at picnics and backyard barbecues throughout Southern California: Baseball, volleyball, soccer and swimming.

They also are the four men's sports considered most expendable a year ago by Cal State Northridge administrators faced with budget deficits and gender-equity concerns.

The cuts were made and the community howled.

So loudly, in fact, that administrators reversed field two months later and reinstated the sports for a year when state Sen. Cathie Wright (R--Simi Valley) provided a $586,000 bailout.

By January, Northridge President Blenda J. Wilson followed the recommendations of a state-mandated task force and made a long-term commitment to "a broad-based athletic program."

The sports were back for good.

"The cuts were the wrong decision and the task force showed [administrators] another route," said Dr. Keith Richman, a Valley physician and businessman who chaired the task force.

Credit Northridge with negotiating its U-turn rather smoothly. Admitting the mistake and setting course in the opposite direction provided the athletic department with significant momentum.

A year after the cuts, a successful fund-raising drive has been completed, budgets have increased, and new stadiums for football, baseball and softball are on the drawing board.

As for picnics, the experience certainly wasn't one for Wilson, who along with Vice President Ronald Kopita and Athletic Director Paul Bubb were raked over the coals for cutting the sports.

Wilson admits to being wiser for the wear. She bowed to the power of public opinion, even if the public still stays away from Matador athletic events in droves.

At the very least, she understands what the Valley community wants: A public university that offers the Southern California signature sports she tried to cut.

"For the very first time, in a vocal and visible way, the community expressed support and caring for the athletic program at the university," Wilson said. "While the means of expression weren't all that comfortable, the caring was sustained throughout the task force process.

"We were helped by the fact that the teams did well in spite of the adversity. The coaches did a wonderful job helping student-athletes feel excited by the opportunity."

The ability of the sports to escape the chopping block and field representative teams is perhaps the strongest proof the cuts should not have been made in the first place.

The four teams that refused to die are basking in their new-found stability. Recruiting is going well and coaches are guardedly optimistic.

* Baseball: Key players transferred after the cuts and the roster was slapped together in August, but the team became a national Cinderella story by winning 25 of its last 27 games to finish with a 37-19 record.

Mike Batesole was chosen co-coach of the year by Collegiate Baseball magazine.

"Keeping the program wasn't about winning games," Batesole said. "Every player on that team knows what it means to be prepared, to be loyal and to be accountable for their actions.

"If you believe having a baseball program is a good learning tool and an integral part of the education process, then, yes, the school is better off having baseball."

Batesole is bringing in at least a dozen recruits and believes the team will be strong for the next several years.

* Volleyball: The cuts caused the team to be drastically altered, beginning at the top. John Price, who guided the Matadors to an NCAA championship appearance in 1993, bolted to coach the women's team at Cal State Bakersfield, leaving assistant Jeff Campbell as interim coach.

Four players transferred, six last-minute replacements hopped aboard and the Matadors finished 10-14.

"[The cuts] were huge because we just didn't have the continuity," said Campbell, now the permanent coach. "[Even now], everyone's new, everyone's young. There's no experience on the team. We play in the toughest conference in the country. It makes it that much more difficult."

* The turmoil caused the swim team not only to lose eight men, but four women transferred or quit, too.

"The team is like a family culture and it includes the men and women," Coach Barry Schreifels said. "From that time until now, it is like a catharsis. For the first time, I can recruit knowing we have stability."

Schreifels has rebuilt the men's roster to 16 and the women's to 26. A team that did not win a single dual meet last season could create a splash in the near future.

"A year ago, that was the most difficult day of my coaching career," Schreifels said. "I'm excited now. This year it will be payback time."

* The soccer team was the first to be reinstated because boosters raised enough money to force the administration's hand. Players who assumed there wouldn't be a team, however, showed up in September out of shape. The Matadors got off to a slow start and finished 7-11-1.

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