A winning culture

Chico State Athletics excels across the board

Members of Chico State’s men’s golf team celebrate their second-place finish at the 2012 NCAA Division II tournament.

Members of Chico State’s men’s golf team celebrate their second-place finish at the 2012 NCAA Division II tournament.

Photo courtesy of Chico State Sports Information Office

Chico State’s Athletics Department may have a hard time following up on its 2010-11 season.

Of the program’s 13 Division II teams, 11 made it to their conference championships and seven won conference titles. The men’s golf team finished second in the nation; the men’s basketball team won its conference despite being picked seventh in pre-season polls; the women’s soccer team made the Final Four tournament.

It’s fair to say the bar has been raised.

“That’s what we want,” said Luke Reid, Chico State’s sports information director. “We want to compete for conference championships every year. That’s why people want to play here, why they want to work here, because they know they’re expected to perform.”

The success has not gone without recognition. Reid and his colleagues believe Chico State is developing a national reputation for athletic excellence—this past spring, the Wildcats won their second consecutive Commissioner’s Cup, awarded to the best overall sports program in the conference—and Athletic Director Anita Barker was voted the regional director of the year.

In terms of across-the-board performance, Chico State was the eighth-best Division II sports program in the nation last year. Reid acknowledges such accolades can only make the program stronger.

The men’s basketball team reacts to Damario Sims’ game-winning shot against rival Sonoma State on March 2.

Photo courtesy of Chico State Sports Information Office

“Coaches want to come here because they know they’ll have the backing, support and resources they need to be successful, and athletes want to come here because they hear about what kind of program we run,” Reid said. “We talk a lot about the student-athlete experience, and I’ve always believed you’re not going to find a lot of athletes who have a great experience on a losing team. It’s fun to win.”

For Kim Sutton, coach of the women’s soccer team for the past 11 years, Chico State’s winning culture starts at the top with Barker. Under her leadership, the coaches, staff and players have created an energy all their own.

“There’s a chemistry in the hallway between our coaches and players; it’s a very collegial atmosphere,” she said. “Not to put pressure on fall sports, but when one team is successful, the excitement and energy carries over to the other teams. It happened last year.”

Reid agrees that heightened expectations may be a defining factor for the upcoming fall teams. Men’s soccer was recently chosen as the favorite to win the conference in a preseason coaches’ poll, while the women’s team enters the season ranked No. 4 in the nation.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how we handle all of the success and expectations that go along with that as a department, as a team, as coaches, as athletes,” Reid said.

Former Chico State runner Scott Bauhs during the 2008 NCAA Division II cross country championships, two months before going pro.

Photo courtesy of Chico State Sports Information Office

Scott Bauhs, a professional distance runner and former two-time national champion for Chico State’s cross-country team, knows what its like to thrive on a winning team.

“We kept each other in check and pushed each other, made sure nobody was doing anything too stupid on any given weekend,” Bauhs said during a recent phone interview. “I can see how teams just mesh together; everyone gets along great and trusts each other to work as a team.”

For Reid and his colleagues, success in the context of their conference is always welcome, but the sports program has an eye on loftier goals in the near future.

“We’ve had a ton of success at the national level, but we haven’t had a lot of our teams win national titles,” he said. “If you were to ask what the next step is, we’re aiming to bring a few more team national titles. It takes a lot of skill, a lot of luck and some things falling in the right place to win a national championship.”

Coach Sutton, with her team on the cusp of a serious run at the NCAA Division II tournament, agrees bringing home a national title would involve more than good recruiting and coaching.

“Just to get that far is a tremendous act,” she said. “It’s not just about talent; it’s so much more than that. Everything has to be clicking on all the right cylinders, everything has to be lined up perfectly. But that’s everyone’s dream, to win a national title. It’s not why I coach, but it would certainly be a culminating event.”

Off the field, the department hopes to offer more competitive scholarships in the future to continue the influx of talented student athletes. But no matter how dominant the program becomes, don’t expect Chico State to make the jump to Division I.

“The Division I idea would be like going from riding a bike to paying for a Hummer,” Reid said. “And if you look at the programs that have bumped up over the last few years, I don’t think there are a whole lot of them recruiting athletes better than ours. In fact, we used to play a lot of those teams, but not anymore—it wasn’t working out very well for them.”