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Cougars gain entry to the NCAA

SAN MARCOS — Cal State San Marcos athletics program is moving on up — to Division-II, that is.

After years of planning and two unsuccessful attempts, the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced this month that it approved the university’s application for Division-II candidacy.

CSU San Marcos, whose mascot is the Cougars, will now transition from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics — where they have amassed successful records, conference and national championships and other accolades — to the NCAA, considered the most recognized brands in college athletics.

“It really is a game changer for our entire institution,” said Jennifer Milo, the university’s athletic director. “A lot of people correlate intercollegiate athletics with the NCAA, and a lot of people don’t know what the NAIA is. From a legitimacy standpoint, the move to the NCAA will signal that we have finally arrived and will be taken seriously as a competitive intercollegiate athletic department.”

San Marcos will become the third Division-II school in San Diego — Point Loma Nazarene University and University of California, San Diego are the others. As part of the transition, the school will also be admitted to the California Collegiate Athletic Association.

The NCAA previously rejected the university’s bids to join Division-II in 2009 and 2012. School officials believed the most recent rejection in 2012 was due to the school being placed on NAIA probation at the time its application was being processed. The probation was the result of the school, on multiple occasions, violating an NAIA rule that requires schools to notify the governing body within 10 days of contacting a prospective transfer or recruit.

A number of the school’s current athletes who were recruited to the school before the 2012 rejection said that this month’s decision makes the wait worthwhile.

“This was something I have heard about since my freshman year, and though I thought it might happen sooner, it happened at the right time,” said Jason Luu, a junior on the cross-country team. “I think everyone is very excited about the move, there is a buzz on campus, and everyone talks about it.”

With the approval, San Marcos will begin a three-year transition process that will ultimately culminate with the school receiving full-fledged NCAA status by the 2017-18 school year, provided the athletics department meets several benchmarks during the transition period.

Cougars’ teams will compete in their final NAIA season this upcoming school year. For the next two years, the teams would play a CCAA schedule, but would not be allowed to participate in any conference or NCAA postseason tournaments.

Milo said the move makes sense from a competitive, fiscal and demographic standpoint, as Cal State San Marcos is significantly larger than many of the private, parochial schools that comprise the Association of Independent Institutions, the NAIA conference in which it plays. Additionally, in order to create a competitive national schedule as an independent NAIA school, CSU San Marcos has had to schedule many of its athletic events out of state, including the Association of Independent Institutions conference tournaments, which are usually across the country.

“Being in the CCAA, we will be competing in our sister Cal State schools, which makes fiscal sense because it will definitely make more sense logistically,” Milo said. “We have been competing against smaller private schools since our affiliation with the A.I.I. began in 1998; we’re no longer a fit in the NAIA.”

School officials and student athletes acknowledged the transition will pose several challenges. For the athletics department, two of the biggest hurdles will be the construction of an on-campus arena and adjusting to the NCAA compliance culture, or as Milo called it, the “nice, big, thick NCAA rules book.”

“We’ve been working on that the last year and a half to get coaches prepared for the change in culture,” Milo said.

The compliance changes, as well as the lack of postseason competition for two years starting in 2015, also will require coaches to change their recruiting tactics.

The Cougars powerful basketball team, for example, was built around players who “bounced back” from the NCAA Division 1 level with one or two years of athletic eligibility remaining. Many of those players joined because they were able to play right away without having to sit out a season, and were able to compete for a national championship.

“It will mean a bit of a change in recruiting philosophy, but I think the most important thing is making sure we continue to recruit kids that are going to be successful here academically,” Milo said. “We have a rigorous academic program, and I think we have done a great job recruiting kids that believe in both the academic experience and the athletic experience they receive here.”

For student athletes, the biggest challenge will be the expected ramp-up in competition at the Division-II level.

Jordan McFarland, a sophomore volleyball player from Valley Center, has been part of a program that has won three conference championships in its three years of existence. She is confident the programs will be able to compete at the Division-II level.

“I definitely believe we will able to transfer our success over from the NAIA to the NCAA level,” McFarland said. “We have a hard-working and disciplined program, and are willing to do what it takes to prove this transition will be great for all of the programs.

“But we still have a lot to accomplish this year, it is our last year in the NAIA and we want to do a lot of big things, and we are looking forward to being in a set conference with a harder schedule to more competition,” she said.