Cougars Athletics Celebrates 20 Years
By Jay Paris
It's a twist on an old question, but the answer is clear at Cal State San Marcos: If life gives you a chicken ranch, make an athletic program and watch it soar.
From those humble beginnings, CSUSM athletics was launched in 1998, and the school is now celebrating the 20th anniversary of intercollegiate athletics.
So CSUSM is throwing a party, and why not? From unearthing items from a chicken ranch to earning NCAA Division II status, the Cougars have plenty to celebrate.
CSUSM opened its doors in 1990, but it wasn't until 1998 that the Cougars launched six sports: men's and women's golf, men's and women's cross country and men's and women's track and field. Following those sports was the birth of baseball, softball and men's and women's soccer in 2006. The growth continued in 2010 with men's and women's basketball and women's volleyball, bringing the total number of programs bleeding Cougars blue to 13.
"When I first started, the general student population didn't even know we had sports,'' said Jennifer Milo, the university’s Director of Athletics. "Now I get asked about sports from students that aren't even student-athletes. They chose CSUSM because we had a full lineup of sports they could support. That shows the growth and impact that we have had and what intercollegiate athletics can mean to a university.''
But by no means was the Cougars' path to Division II status a smooth road. After first hatching the idea to become a NCAA Division II member in 2004, the Cougars didn’t get the go-ahead to enter the membership process until 10 years later.
"It is a significant achievement to join the NCAA and a victory for our entire community," CSUSM President Karen Haynes said at the time.
Not until 2016 was CSUSM’s provisional membership approved, the final stage of a three-year process for status in NCAA Division II. The Cougars still couldn't compete in the playoffs. But it was another win for CSUSM as it checked off the boxes of benchmarks and requirements to join higher education's most prestigious athletic institution.
"The move to the NCAA provides the best possible experience for our student-athletes, while securing the long-term future of CSUSM athletics and aligning our university with the most recognized brand in college sports,'' Haynes said at a campus ceremony last fall.
CSUSM students have voiced their support by twice voting to expand athletics by increasing student fees to assist with funding the department.
"The support we have received from CSUSM students has been amazing,'' Milo said. "It's clear our students want a robust athletic department."
Everyone likes hanging with winners, and that was what the Cougars were in their first official year. They finished fourth in the standings for the California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) Robert J. Hiegert Commissioner's Cup, which tabulates the highest aggregate ranking in eight of the conference's 13 sports.
Among the highlights of the university’s inaugural year in Division II, women's cross country finished eighth in the national meet, the women's golf team won the school's first CCAA title, Natalie Rodriguez placed at nationals in both cross country and track and field (third and fifth, respectively). Volleyball coach Andrea Leonard and men's and women's golf coach Greg Hutton earned CCAA Coach of the Year honors. The Cougars had four additional CCAA top-five finishes in volleyball, men's cross country, men's basketball and women's soccer. And a conference-high 41 CSUSM student-athletes were named to the CCAA All-Academic team for the spring semester.
Before CSUSM athletics' recent success, however, came a lot of hard work to lay a strong and successful foundation. One individual, Ron Pulvers, was instrumental in helping launch the men's and women's soccer programs from scratch in 2006. At the time, the school had a soccer field on campus, which was a luxury compared to other sports. The baseball team, coached by Dennis Pugh, and the softball program, led by Milo, played mostly road games and called local high schools home.
"All that was here was the Mangrum Track and a soccer field,'' Pulvers said. "I remember going down there and pacing it off to see if we had enough room for a soccer field. We did, so that was the game-changer for me.''
Steve Nichols, who preceded Milo as athletic director; Steve Scott, the longtime coach of the men’s and women’s cross country and track and field programs; and the late Debbie Dale, a former assistant AD, were the guiding lights of the fledging athletic department in early 2000s. Nichols has returned to his role as a political science professor, while Scott retired in April after a 19-season run.
But the work that trio produced lapped other colleges with twice as many people. It was that grit and get-it-done attitude that was evident then and remains prevalent today.
"Our department has come a long way because the administration has worked really hard and held themselves to a high level of excellence,'' said Leonard, the women's volleyball coach since 2010. "They never took the short cut and did everything the right way with flying colors.''
That's no accident because of the TRACS program, the CSUSM athletics culture and value system. About four years ago, when the Cougars started the process of moving from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics to the NCAA, Milo brought together the administration and coaches to introduce them to the TRACS acronym: Trust, Respect, Attitude, Communication and Support.
"She had this great vision, and everyone had to be on the same page to buy in, in order to succeed at a higher level,” Leonard said. “And we did.''
When I first started, the general student population didn't even know we had sports. Now I get asked about sports from students that aren't even student-athletes.
The bottom line was the type of student-athletes the coaches were told to recruit. At some schools, the “student” part of the equation is an afterthought -- not so at CSUSM. That was important to both Haynes and Milo in their quest to see academics and athletics be a source of pride to those associated with the university.
"We sought people that wanted strong academics and had high character,'' Leonard said. "We set our expectations high, and that was hard to do. We were trying to get the athletes that weren't swayed by the bright lights of a big city and D-I scholarships, but someone that wanted to be part of something special and build history."
That beats searching for a place to play, something Leonard and other Cougars coaches had to wrestle with in the program's early days. Women's volleyball set up shop at Escondido and Pacific Ridge high schools, and any other community gym with an open floor. Catching a Cougars basketball game often meant a trek to MiraCosta College.
That's all in the past now, since the grand opening in 2016 of the Cougars' new on-campus home, The Sports Center. It's primed for its third season of showcasing the best of what the Cougars have to offer.
"That was neat to travel around, but our games didn't really have a college feel,'' Leonard said. "People would see us come in and say, 'Who is this?’”
"Now those schools and their club teams are coming to our gym and watching us play. They get the feel now of college sports, and it's really transformative.''
It's unlikely that those spectators know they are in the shadow of a plowed-over chicken ranch. Instead, they love clucking for their Cougars and wondering where this motivated athletic program will ascend next. While things are going along swimmingly, Milo isn't resting.
"If someone wants to donate funds for an aquatic center, we could have aquatic teams,'' Milo said. "I'm not the type to sit back and rest after doing the hard work. Hopefully, with increased enrollment, all of our teams will have the proper resources to compete for national championships.''
Now the Cougars are charting their course for the following two decades.
"I think in the next 20 years, this place is going to continue to grow and prosper,'' Pulvers said. "The department of athletics is growing every day, and it's a credit to our administration, which is very forward-thinking.''
When pondering the impressive past, one does so with the knowledge that converting a chicken ranch into an athletic field was anything but a fowl idea.
"The university's dedication to the student-athlete experience hasn't changed since day one,'' Pulvers said. "And those student-athletes get to experience it in one of the most beautiful places in the world.''
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
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