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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | MIKE HISERMAN

Despite Recent Turmoil, CSUN Looking Strong

November 14, 1998|MIKE HISERMAN

If you've seen these pages, you've seen the headlines about Cal State Northridge's athletic program.

Most recently, they have been big, bold, and not very flattering.

A coach is arrested on federal drug charges and, within a week, the school's two top administrators for athletics are forced to resign their posts.

For brevity's sake, we won't revisit the ugly details. Let's just say Northridge has had better months.

And, for that matter, we won't dredge up several other transgressions that skewered Matador athletics in recent weeks, months and years before this latest scandal.

Let's just say Northridge has had better decades.

Yet, amid all the turmoil and upheaval, there has been another significant development relating to the school's top teams.

They're looking stronger than ever.

Northridge's football team--often maligned as the money-sucking scourge of the school's cash-poor athletic contingent--leads the perennially strong I-AA Big Sky Conference.

The men's soccer team--put back together with shoestring and scotch tape after being disbanded in the summer of 1997--has won 11 of its last 12 games.

The baseball team--also axed 16 months ago--expected to sign seven recruits this week during the NCAA early signing period.

The men's basketball team, which opens its season today at Long Beach State, is perhaps the most talented in school history, led by Rico Harris, a 6-foot-9 forward who chose to play for the Matadors instead of Rhode Island or Connecticut.

The women's basketball team, rocked by the Oct. 27 arrest of its coach, Michael Abraham, and then again when interim coach Judith Brame resigned six days after taking over, launched its season like a fireball in an exhibition last Sunday.

The scene surrounding the Matadors' 103-72 victory over the Portland Saints in many ways resembled a revival--and provided a hint to the foxhole mentality that prevails within the school's athletic program.

Among the crowd of 425 were a majority of Northridge head coaches and many athletes. Baseball Coach Mike Batesole made attendance mandatory for his players, and several came away impressed.

"I haven't seen much women's basketball, but we look pretty good," one baseball player said. "We play up-tempo and it's entertaining."

School President Blenda J. Wilson, flanked by her senior assistant, Jim Goss, clearly enjoyed the action, clapping vigorously when Northridge scored and even slapping her thigh and grinning broadly when a Matador player was assessed a technical foul for staring down an opponent.

Bobby Braswell, men's basketball coach who is warming to his newfound duties as interim athletic director, shook plenty of hands and slapped a few backs.

The message was undeniable.

The games go on.

"We're going to have some good seasons amid the firing and hiring," said Jeff Campbell, men's volleyball coach. "There are some good coaches in place who are going to have winning seasons."

Campbell might even be among them. Waiting in the wings for his team is Eckhard Walter, a 6-10 middle blocker from Germany, who must pass two classes this fall in order to be eligible.

"It always goes back to the players," football Coach Ron Ponciano said. "What's important is how the kids stay prepared."

Ponciano had the unenviable task of preparing his team for the biggest game of its season during a particularly tumultuous week when two of his bosses--Brame and Paul Bubb, one of his staunchest supporters--resigned.

"Our approach was, we can do this, so let's go do it," he said.

And the Matadors did, defeating Portland State, 32-28.

"All the adversity has brought us closer together," Ponciano said. " . . . We've moved forward. We want to go out and show the rest of the country who we are."

Or at least prove that Northridge can make headlines or earn a segment on the 11 o'clock news with something other than a scandal or firing.

"It seems like there always has been a black cloud over us, despite the positive things that go on here," said Ryan Finney, Northridge's sports information director. "What upsets me most is that the student-athletes are hurt the most. I wish it could be different for their sake."

Linebacker Shayne Blakey, who had a big game against Portland State, said he's learned when to tune in and when to tune out.

"Before a practice, it goes through your mind and you can't believe some of the things that are going on," he said. "But as an athlete, you have to go out there and perform regardless."

So they do. Perhaps even better than before. And since statistics are the most convenient measuring tool for such claims, here is a nugget worth consideration:

Since the resignation of its leadership on Nov. 3, Northridge teams have competed in 10 games.

And won them all.

*

Staff writers Fernando Dominguez, Steve Henson and correspondent Mike Bresnahan contributed to this column.

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