By Brian Brownfield–
Successful seasons are often followed by tougher schedules, more adversity, and a bigger target on the team’s back. The 2015-16 athletic year will be no different for Menlo College, but the challenges will be even larger. This summer featured coaching changes, a division switch, and even the introduction of club and intramural sports. With a lot of turnover and uncertainty, there could be reasons for concern. However, the staff, coaches, players, and fans believe this year is the beginning of great things to come for Menlo Athletics.
One of the biggest changes is a switch in conference play for the Oaks, who are the newest members of the Golden State Athletic Conference (GSAC). The California Pacific Conference (Cal Pac), which had been a longtime conference of residence for Menlo, was beginning to fade with weaker competition and few possibilities for internal improvements. The conference that made the most sense to join was the GSAC, featuring a host of schools that Menlo is already familiar with from non-conference matches. The schools Menlo will now face in conference play are the following: Arizona Christian, Biola, Hope International, San Diego Christian, The Master’s College, Vanguard, Westmont, and William Jessup.
Athletic Director Keith Spataro explains, “The GSAC provided an environment that was better suited for athletic department goals. The colleges and universities within the GSAC were more closely aligned with our vision of athletics as it relates to the mission of the college. Furthermore, the conference provided full conference schedules for our sports. Finally, the cost associated with the move allowed for predictable budget and spending.”
One other crucial aspect about the switch was considering the NAIA National Championships. The Cal Pac only receives one bid for National Championships, which goes to the team that wins the conference title. On the other hand, the GSAC consistently sends multiple teams into the tournament, providing Menlo with a better opportunity to win a national title.
“The competitiveness of the conference will prepare us more appropriately for post-season play,” Spataro commented. “The GSAC consistently advances deep into the NAIA National Championships in all sports and that is indicative of their highly competitive regular season contests.”
Here is a list of the reigning conference champions from each of the major sports in the GSAC (overall record listed with conference record in parentheses):
Women’s Soccer – Vanguard 16-3-2 (8-2)
Men’s Soccer – Hope International 13-5-1 (8-2)
Volleyball – Concordia 34-4 (15-1)
Women’s Basketball – Concordia 23-7 (14-2)
Men’s Basketball – Hope International 32-3 (14-2)
Softball – Concordia 50-8 (20-4)
Baseball – The Master’s College 42-14 (33-9)
The move is a daunting task for the fall sports featured at Menlo in particular. The Men’s and Women’s Soccer teams, as well as the Volleyball team, earned some share of the Cal Pac title in 2014. Men’s Soccer took home the Cal Pac Northern Conference regular season title. Simultaneously, Women’s soccer won the four-team playoff and became Cal Pac champions for the first time since 2007, winning it on their home turf. Volleyball leaves the Cal Pac having won the title for the past three seasons. Volleyball is also trying to match the feat set by Women’s Basketball as being the only Menlo team to win four consecutive titles (it should be noted that the Women’s Basketball squad won four straight regular season titles, losing in the playoffs last year).
Some outsiders would argue that the move to the GSAC is going to leave Menlo in a bit of a “rebuilding” phase for a few years while they focus on recruiting and adapting to the level of play. But, if you ask inside Menlo Athletics, the confidence level is just as high as it was before the move. Everybody is ready to tackle the new challenges that are ahead.
“Hopefully it means that we will be battle-tested and well prepared to advance deep into the NAIA National Championships,” says Spataro. “I also hope that it provides a great student-athlete experience for each of our student-athletes.”
Among the headlines created by Menlo Athletics this summer was the recreation of the Cross Country and Track and Field teams, which will field new men’s and women’s teams. Cross Country was only gone for one year at Menlo, with not enough interest being drawn for it to compete at the varsity level in 2014-15. It is important to note that Cross Country was brought back as a varsity sport in 2012, but was only offered for two years. Track and Field returns to the fold following its collapse in the early 1990s, even though it was one of the four original sports brought to the college in 1929-30. While current students know relatively little about the program and its history, it has one of the richest pasts among Menlo Athletics. Seventeen former athletes have been inducted into the Menlo Athletics Hall of Fame for their performances in Track and Field, but the success doesn’t stop there. Rink Babka, a Track and Field athlete at Menlo from 1954-55, won the silver medal in discus at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. In addition, former Track and Field standout Bill Toomey won the gold medal in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City in the Decathalon.
Dan Noel is the new coach for Cross Country and Track and Field. While new to Menlo, he is no stranger to success as a coach. Last year he was an assistant coach for the Track and Field squad at San Francisco State University, where he spent most of his time with the hurdlers. His hurdlers set several records during the season for their performances, and even had a national qualifier. Prior to his time at San Francisco State, he was an assistant at Humboldt State University where his teams constantly finished in the top-ten at meets. If you spend a few moments with the guy, it’s easy to see his burning passion for running and his desire to recreate a former powerhouse at Menlo.
“I envision a program that competes at the conference and national level, but I also want our students to serve as role models in the classroom and leaders in the Menlo community,” Coach Noel stated. “I want them to leave Menlo prepared to thrive in whatever field they are passionate about. I want them to graduate from Menlo prepared for success in everything that they do. This is our acorn year, if you will. I reiterate to our student-athletes, that we have the chance to establish standards and expectations that will set us on a path for excellence, a path that will grow us into broad, rooted, towering Oaks.”
To further enhance the athletic offerings, Menlo College created the first ever Club and Intramural sport system. The goal is to give those not participating in a varsity sport a way to get in on the fun, stay in shape, and make a lot of new friends in the process. There are several tiers to the system, with club sports being both competitive and recreational, along with intramural sport leagues and tournaments that will continue throughout the academic year. Heading the department is former Menlo Men’s Basketball coach and Assistant Athletic Director Jon Surface.
“My main duties are providing various opportunities for Menlo students to be active,” Surface says. “Duties include assisting with the organization and support of the Club Sports on campus, creating and managing an intramural program, and enhancing the recreational activities available on campus and off campus.”
While the program may be in its first year of existence, Surface is quite excited about the future of the system and direction in which it is heading.
“I think this new area is something the campus has been missing and it will continue to grow in popularity,” Surface explains. “We have had a great response in the first month after launching the program this fall and I expect it will continue to gather steam throughout the rest of the year.”
The competitive tier of Club Sports features Cheer & Dance and Rugby. Meanwhile, the recreational tier is offering Ultimate Frisbee, Billiards, Tennis, Ski & Snowboard, Lacrosse, Running, and Outdoor Adventure. With a variety of choices for students to participate in, there is certainly no shortage of opportunities. According to the student body, there is plenty excitement about the new Club and Intramural sport system.
“I feel it gives the opportunity to let the non-athletes become a part of something that athletes get to experience, that camaraderie,” junior Cornelius Woods explains. “As Co-President of Ultimate Frisbee Club, I’ve seen athletes and non-athletes, men and women, share the field and have fun, which hasn’t been available to students before.”
“I think it’s a pretty cool concept,” says senior baseball player John Bowling. “It gives students who may not be interested in other sports an opportunity to compete in something that they find exhilarating.”
Participation in club sports is steadily increasing and people are coming out in droves to the on-campus tournaments. Student involvement has not been a problem for the club sport system so far. It is generating nothing but positive energy for the school. With all the changes in place for the school year, it could be a year or two before the varsity sports settle into their new conference comfortably. Moreover, the Club and Intramural sport system might take a little longer to develop the popularity it can truly achieve. But with a solid foundation in place, Menlo is in the process of building something that can last for a long time.