San Marcos, CA …It’s a twist on an old question, but the answer is clear at California State University San Marcos: If life gives you a chicken ranch, make an athletic program and watch it soar.
So CSUSM is throwing a party and why not? From unearthing items from a chicken ranch to earning National Collegiate Athletic Association (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 started keeping score in six sports: men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s cross country and men’s and women’s track & field. Following those sports, were 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 squads bleeding Cougar blue to 13.
“When I first started, the general student population didn’t even know we had sports,” Milo said. “Now I get asked about sports from students that aren’t even student-athletes. They chose CSUSM because we had a full line up 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, it wasn’t until 10 years later that the Cougars got the go-ahead to enter the membership process.
“It is a significant achievement to join the NCAA and a victory for our entire community,” CSUSM President Karen Haynes said at the time.
It wouldn’t be until 2016 that CSUSM got the two thumbs up on its provisional membership, the final stage of a three-year process for status in the NCAA Division II.
The Cougars still couldn’t compete in the playoffs. But it was another win for CSUSM as it was smartly checking 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,” she said.
CSUSM students have voiced their support for athletics by twice voting to expand CSUSM Athletics by increasing student fees to assist with funding the Department of Athletics.
“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 California Collegiate Athletics 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 in the inaugural year as NCAA DII members, women’s cross country finished eighth at nationals, the women’s golf team won the school’s first CCAA title, Natalie Rodriguez had national finishes in both cross country and track and field, third and fifth respectively. Volleyball head coach Andrea Leonard and men’s and women’s golf head coach Greg Hutton earned CCAA Coach of the Year. The Cougars had four additional CCAA top-five finishes in volleyball, men’s cross country, men’s basketball and women’s soccer. In addition, CSUSM Athletics placed a conference-high 41 student-athletes on the CCAA Spring All-Academic.
But prior to CSUSM Athletics’ recent success, 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 programs from scratch back 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 squad, 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.”
Athletic Director Steve Nichols, head coach for men’s and women’s cross country and track & field Steve Scott and the late Debbie Dale, 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, grind 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 Andrea 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. Some four years ago when the Cougars started the process of morphing 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, Accountability, Communication and Support.
“That was from Jennifer,” Leonard said. “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. And we did.”
The bottom-line was the type of student-athletes the coaches were told to recruit. At some schools, the student part of the student-athlete equation is an afterthought — not so at CSUSM. That was important to both Haynes and Milo and their quest to see academics and athletics be a source of pride to those associated with CSUSM.
“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 DI 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 in the program’s early days had to wrestle with. 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, with the grand opening in 2016 of the Cougars’ sparkling 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. But what’s keen about the Cougars’ nomadic time was that it planted a CSUSM flag in different parts of North County.
“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 those spectators know they are in the shadow of a plowed-over chicken ranch. Instead they love clucking for their Cougars and wondering where next this motivated athletic program will ascend.
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 chart 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.”
California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) Athletics is a member of the NCAA DII and California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA). The 20-year-old program began in 1998 and is now home to 13 sports, including: Baseball, Men’s Basketball, Men’s Cross Country, Men’s Golf, Men’s Soccer, Men’s Track & Field, Women’s Basketball, Women’s Cross Country, Women’s Golf, Women’s Soccer, Softball, Women’s Track & Field, and Volleyball. For more information on CSUSM Athletics, visit www.CSUSMCougars.com or follow us on social: @CSUSMCougars on Instagram and Twitter, or @CSUSMAthletics on Facebook.