UC Merced takes its sports program to next level

FRESNO, Calif.

The five and a half year old university already has nearly 300 student athletes competing on 14 club teams.

"It started off really small, and it's really grown. Basketball games we have a huge attendance, the crowd's getting bigger. We're getting rowdy. It's really cool," Joseph Ortiz said.

And now the Bobcats are applying to join the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, better known as the NAIA.

"It's exciting. Being here since we opened the campus, we've always had these things come along that are the next exciting step. And for us and our program, this is one of the largest," David Dunham said.

"Representatives from the NAIA visited the campus last month. They'll make recommendations to a council, which will decide in April whether to welcome U.C. Merced to its 8 member California Pacific Conference."

"That consits of schools up the 99 corridor, William Jessup, Simpson College. And it also allows us to commute to the Bay Area with Menlo College, Holy Names Univeristy," David Noble said.

If the application is approved, four teams would join the conference in the fall.

"Right now for our first teams would be men's basketball and women's volleyball, along with men's and women's cross country," Dunham said.

Recreation and athletics director David Dunham says eventually U.C. Merced plans to join the NCAA, but for now the NAIA is a much better fit.

He believes belonging to a conference may convince more student athletes to attend the university. And the current athletes hope it will encourage more community members to support all of the teams on campus as they continue to build the sports program from the ground up.

"That's what's really good about this campus. You can make what you want happen," Ortiz said.

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