Going for best

Chico State athletics has a shot at being the best Division II program in the nation

The stakes will be higher than usual for Chico State athletics this spring.

The Wildcats are a close second in the fall standings for the Division II Learfield Sports Director’s Cup, a national ranking system that measures the overall success of a school’s athletics department by awarding points based on the performance of up to seven women’s and seven men’s teams.

Despite the disadvantage of having only 13 teams (seven women’s and six men’s), Chico State finished with 257 points, only three behind leader Grand Valley State in Michigan, which has won the cup eight years running.

“Every year, they win this thing by a landslide,” said Luke Reid, Chico State’s sports information director. “They are a machine in a lot of ways.”

Chico State was bolstered by top-four finishes from their women’s soccer and men’s cross-country teams, a seventh-place finish from women’s cross country and a 17th-place finish from men’s soccer. This level of success has become the norm for Chico State athletics, which has finished in the top 28 in the Learfield standings for the past decade, distinguishing itself from a field of more than 300 schools. The Wildcats also won the Commissioner’s Cup last year, which is awarded to the best program in the conference.

Oddly enough, when tracing the roots of the department’s achievements, one has to begin with the elimination of one of its most popular sports.

Lisa Webster helped lead the women’s soccer team to a top-four finish this year.

Photo courtesy of Chico State Sports Information Dept.

Chico State athletics came to a crossroads during the academic year 1998-99, which saw the demise of the football program and a switch from the Northern California Athletic Conference to the California Collegiate Athletic Association. At the time, the NCAC was the last remaining Division II conference in the nation that didn’t offer scholarships, so something had to be done.

“Nobody wanted to drop the football program,” Reid said. “It was a turning point in terms of what our goals were as a department: What do we want to do, what do we want to see happen and how does football fit or not fit into that? The decision was made in order to give our department the chance to be successful across the board.”

The Athletics Department decided funding would be spread too thin if they provided scholarships and kept the football program and its associated travel and equipment costs. Dismantling the program allowed resources to be allocated evenly throughout the department, rather than focusing on a few high-profile sports. Reid credits Anita Barker, Chico State’s athletic director in her 10th year, for remaining true to that vision and for hiring coaches players find appealing. Reid also cites one factor most schools can’t compete with when recruiting student athletes: Chico itself.

“Almost to a coach, they’ll tell you if someone is interested in Chico State and a few other schools and we can actually get them to come up for a visit, they almost always choose Chico,” he said. “It’s just a great campus and college atmosphere.”

Greg Clink, who has slowly developed a winning men’s basketball program since taking the reins as head coach four years ago (including a 11-3 start this season), also believes Chico is a big draw to prospective student athletes.

“This is a place where you can attract talent,” he said. “Chico has a good reputation and might be the best college town on the West Coast. It’s an attractive place—there’s something here for everyone, which allows us to recruit a broad spectrum of students.”

Jay Flores makes a basket for the Wildcats.

Photo courtesy of Chico State Sports Information Dept.

During the recruitment process four years ago, senior soccer player Lisa Webster was sold during her first visit to the campus, where she got a feel for the town and the close connections among the women on the team.

“As soon as I walked on the campus I just fell in love with everything about it,” she said.

Of the athletics program overall, Webster felt like she was in good hands throughout her Wildcat career. She noted how Barker, the school’s highest sports administrator, was very much on ground level with the women during their Division II NCAA tournament run.

“Anita was sweeping rain off the field before one of our final games in L.A.,” she said. “You could really tell how much she cared about us.”

On potentially making the leap from second to first in the Learfield standings this spring, Reid says Wildcat athletics would have to see more solid performance across the board.

“In order to stay where we are, we would need both of our basketball teams to make the NCAA tournament and our baseball, softball and track and field teams to do really well,” he said. “We’re in the mix for all that, and it wouldn’t be out of the question for our men’s golf team to go out and win the national title. So it would basically have to be a perfect storm.”

Aside from bragging rights, overtaking Grand Valley State would be another strong selling point to student athletes and coaches considering Chico State as a potential home, Reid said.

“We could say, ‘You’re looking at the best Division II athletics department in the nation.’”