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Student of Law

Heitzman deciphers intricacies of NCAA regulations to determine eligibility of Northridge athletes.

October 01, 1998|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — Although they have never met, Heath McElwee and Mike Rainer shared the goal of wearing a Cal State Northridge baseball uniform.

Both came to Northridge as junior college transfers, McElwee from Pierce in 1994, Rainer from Cuesta last month.

And both faced disappointing news, learning they were academically ineligible because junior college classes they believed were transferable to Northridge, in fact, were not.

But here their similarity ends.

McElwee didn't find out about his status until a coach pulled him aside four days before the Matadors' opener in February 1996. It took Northridge administrators eight months from the time they received his junior college transcripts to determine that he wasn't eligible.

"Communication was so bad, they had from the middle of the summer to figure it out," McElwee said. "I could have gone to summer school or to winter session and gained my eligibility had I known sooner. I wasn't given that opportunity."

For Rainer, the process is no less painful but he believes he has a tireless advocate working on his behalf: Kathy Heitzman, Northridge's first full-time compliance coordinator.

"Kathy is making her best effort and doing a really good job," said Rainer, a right-handed pitcher. "Whether or not I end up eligible, I'll know we did our best."

Heitzman informed Rainer of his status three days after school started and a mere two weeks after Northridge received his transcripts. She quickly developed a two-pronged strategy for him to seek eligibility.

Rainer will ask the instructor of a business calculus class, which he dropped in mid-semester at Cuesta, if he can pass with a D grade. It's a longshot, but worth a try, Heitzman said.

Failing that, Heitzman will file an appeal with the NCAA pointing out several factors: Rainer was a Division I qualifier out of Royal High who was set to attend Northridge as a freshman until baseball was temporarily dropped in June, 1997; he said he was wrongly advised by a Cuesta counselor that the developmental English class he took would transfer to Northridge, and he used his redshirt year at Cuesta and would lose a year of eligibility if forced to sit out another season.

"He has a lot going for him," she said. "He's a good student who was a victim of poor advice and of Northridge dropping baseball."

Heitzman was hired in March as the university began to follow through on a series of recommendations made by a task force convened when baseball and three other men's sports were reinstated because of public outcry.

Coaches and athletes alike are thrilled with her work. Whether Heitzman is good at her job or it's simply that finally someone is on the job is less important than the fact the job is getting done.

Before her arrival, eligibility and NCAA compliance matters were two of many responsibilities assigned to Tom Shannon, the faculty representative to athletics, and Judy Brame, an assistant athletic director.

"They did their best, but they had too much on their plate," said Janet Sherman, the Northridge softball coach.

Before coming to Northridge, Heitzman worked as an intern at NCAA headquarters in Overland Park, Kan. Her ability to write a persuasive appeal became evident when offensive lineman Mike Barnes gained eligibility with Northridge several weeks ago.

Barnes, a senior, transferred from Arizona State and was declared ineligible because he had not made enough progress in his major. An initial appeal to the NCAA was denied, but Heitzman did not stop. She filed another appeal, adding information that Barnes' mother was ill, requiring him to return to California.

"She knows the inner workings of the NCAA," said Jeff Kearin, a Northridge assistant football coach. "There were extenuating circumstances with Mike and she knew how to make that clear. She knows what buttons to push."

Kearin only wishes Heitzman had been at Northridge a year ago. The school might not be facing a lawsuit from two former football players whose eligibility problems caused the team to forfeit two victories.

The coach has assumed blame for misinterpreting the NCAA's double-transfer rules as they pertained to defensive lineman Tyrone Gunn and running back Deriek Charles. They are suing Northridge, claiming the school was negligent in reviewing their transcripts.

"The information was there to be seen, and I should have seen it, but I wasn't looking for it," Kearin said. "Kathy would have found it."

A few weeks ago, a player from a Division I program called Kearin and inquired about transferring to Northridge. After checking with Heitzman, it was clear the player would be violating the same rule that rendered Gunn and Charles ineligible.

"I called him and said don't come here," Kearin said.

Heitzman is in a delicate position. She must enforce NCAA and Big Sky Conference rules, while at the same time pursue eligibility for Northridge athletes.

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