Bathed in the dusky haze of the afternoon sun, the smell of freshly mowed grass hovering as an undeniable harbinger of spring, the University of La Verne baseball and softball teams on April 8 don...
Relocation of the baseball field becomes a reality as construction starts on residence hall, part of a 10-year campus transformation plan.
La Verne batters usually heard the jab at away games. One of them would hit a routine fly ball that the left fielder would camp under then catch, and as the hitter returned to the dugout someone from the opposing team would yell, “that woulda been out at La Verne!”
The joke referred to La Verne’s baseball field and its notoriously short distance to the left field fence. It may have started back when the left field fence stood parallel to Second Street – a mere 290 feet down the line. Even with wooden bats, balls would be driven over the fence, across the street and off the wall of the old Alpha Beta, and sometimes fly balls that would be caught at most any other field cleared the fence at La Verne.
This was not a place where pitchers rushed out to take their turn on the mound.
The field was later turned clockwise 90 degrees, adding 25 feet to the left field dimensions. But with the introduction of aluminum bats and the prevailing wind now blowing straight out to left, home runs flew out just as fast.
Baseball humor can be brutal, but the “out at La Verne” crack points to an unfortunate truth: the school has always been short on space. Wedged between Second Street to the north, railroad tracks to the south, D Street to the east and campus buildings to the west, the baseball field was cozy, nestled into its confined area.
The baseball diamond doubled as the soccer field and was widely ridiculed by visiting teams from around the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC). The problem: nowhere else to squeeze in a soccer field on campus.
Founded in 1891, the university may be one of the city’s oldest inhabitants, but it still must comply with a modern city hall. A bedroom community, La Verne has remained one of the most desirable cities in Southern California in which to live largely through its reputation of respect for traditional values and its conservative approach to expansion.
The university works within those constraints, and, despite the limitations, recognizes that such a small-town feel is both good for those already enrolled and a strong selling point for prospective students. The city doesn’t want skyscraper science buildings towering over its residents, as can be seen in other college towns. So the university does its best to move things around in such a way to keep the city happy and also to best serve its students.
Room to grow
The baseball team played its final game on the baseball field on April 29. The target date is December 2013 for the opening of a new baseball field a few blocks away on a plot of land previously acquired by the university. The acreage, presently referred to as Campus West, is also where, in addition to an NCAA-compliant baseball field, the university will construct a softball field and a soccer field.
Finally, room to grow.
“The university’s plans for Campus West appear accommodating,” said softball coach Julie Smith, a starter on the 1996 U.S. Olympic softball team. Softball has practiced and played games at a city facility, Wheeler Park, for several years since demand for additional student parking became so great that the on-campus softball field, with no other city-approved options, was converted.
Moving athletic facilities to Campus West has been part of the university’s 10-year Campus Master Plan for more than a decade, and in mid-spring, it became a reality. Earthmovers began preparing the ground along D Street for construction of a new residence hall that would address another space deficiency: adequate and ample student housing. This is also part of the master plan approved by the Board of Trustees long ago.
The new residence hall will accommodate nearly 400 students. Currently, a number of “on-campus” students live at the Sheraton Fairplex Hotel or in aging Studebaker-Hanawalt and Brandt residence halls. The new hall ties in with the Abraham Campus Center, Johnson Family Plaza and renovated Sports Science & Athletics Pavilion to promote identity and a stronger bond among students. It’s a bold step toward re-establishing La Verne as a residential school rather than a commuter school, a move designed to change the entire feel of the campus.
Change has come slowly at La Verne during its 120-year history, though lately the university appears to be making up for lost time. The Campus Center project brought three new facilities to the campus. Then, Founders Auditorium underwent a complete renovation.
Athletics felt some of the impact.
The old gym and an adjoining athletic training room and classroom were removed to make room for the Campus Center, although Athletics got some of the space back when the Super Tents were renovated and re-configured to produce 25 percent more usable floor space than before. Upstairs, in what is now called the Sports Science & Athletics Pavilion, the volleyball and basketball teams enjoy the use of rejuvenated Frantz Athletic Court, regarded as one of the best in the conference.
Outside, the all-weather track will soon be completely reconstructed, and the football field inside Ortmayer Stadium re-sodded.
Because La Verne has never had a pool, the water polo and swim teams have, since inception, utilized Las Flores Park a few blocks from campus. But the relocation of the softball and tennis teams, and now baseball and soccer, has many in athletics concerned. There was a strong emotional attachment to the field named after longtime coach Ben Hines. Suitable temporary practice and game facilities will be located and secured for the two years until Campus West opens, but how will potential recruits feel about that?
Rex Huigens, arguably the most successful sports figure in the school’s history, first as a player, then as a coach, was a master recruiter and doesn’t mention facilities early in the conversation.
“I don’t think you sell La Verne athletics as much as it is the idea that each coach has to sell himself,” Huigens said. “I think most kids that you’re trying to recruit … we say and we try to sell the whole school, the education, the classes, the professors and you’re trying to sell your program. But the bottom line for most kids who are athletes, they want to play for a coach that they identify with, who has the same philosophy or who has a philosophy they can buy into.
“You also have to have the major that they want, obviously, but they’re going to want to play athletics because of the coach more than anything else. Then facilities get involved in it a little bit. If it’s a toss-up between one school and another, they start looking at facilities. I don’t think, if it’s a school they don’t want to go to, they’d go because of better facilities. But if it’s a contest, then they start looking at those kinds of things.”
New Coaches Selected
In a sign of changing times, two of the school’s highest-profile coaching positions were filled recently with coaches who were neither household names nor previously affiliated with the university.
Christopher Krich, previously an assistant coach at Millikin University in Illinois, was hired to coach football and help the program rebound from its recent struggles. New volleyball coach Jenna Panatier, who most recently served as an assistant coach at Lipscomb University (Tenn.), brings with her eight years experience as a collegiate head coach.
In the La Verne College days, coaches were typically “home-grown,” and often selected from whoever was on staff. These days, things are much more complicated. Athletic Director Julie Kline has observed that the hiring process at La Verne and in NCAA Division III is different than what most sports fans are used to based on alumni feedback.
“We just finished this football coach search, and during the process, I’d get e-mails and calls from alumni who’d say, ‘I’m watching ESPN and schools fire a coach one day and two days later they’re hiring a coach.’ So that’s what they had expected from us throughout the process,” Kline said. “We don’t have the resources to buy a coach or to fly across the nation and find a coach and offer him millions of dollars. There’s a process. There’s a recruitment process.
“Even before that, there’s the process of gaining that position, gaining approval to advertise and continue that position. Once that’s approved, there’s a budget process that you have to go through. You have to identify the salary range. Then you go into the advertisement process, and because we went through a national search we had a longer timeline for accepting applications – which was until we felt like we had a qualified pool of applicants. We’re talking at least a month before you feel like you have a good-quality pool of applicants.
“Then you go through the screening process of those applicants. That takes a lot of time. We had more than 200 applicants. Then, there was a search committee – and I sat separately from the search committee – and they go through the pool of what we believe are qualified coaches that meet our current needs and philosophy and the direction we’re headed. Then there’s a telephone interview process and then you take your top people from there and you bring them on campus and you have on-campus interviews. Each one is a full day. You try to get the travel arrangements made for people on the East Coast and coordinate schedules with everyone on campus, to meet with Admissions, meet with the provost, meet with the Board of Trustees.”
Past experience is an important factor. But it is only part of the picture when it comes to selecting a new coach.
“My image of a head football coach at La Verne is someone who’s full of vinegar and energy and ambition,” said university president Steve Morgan. “I think we made a great choice. We got a guy who really wants to be successful, and I think he’s got what it takes.”
It’s safe to say the people in La Verne’s athletic department are hungry, and they’re competitive.
Krich was hired for the football job after the program had managed only four victories in as many years. Krich is rated a strong recruiter, and he has already reached out to former La Verne players who are coaching at local high schools and community colleges in an effort to get more talented players coming to play for the Leopards. Panatier has head coaching experience both within the SCIAC and at the NCAA Division I level. Smith’s softball program is among the school’s most successful. Richard Reed, another young coach, had the men’s basketball team contending for the conference title last season. The golf team has won five consecutive conference championships, including this spring, and are nationally ranked year after year.
So while La Verne still sports that old-style, family-type, school-with-a-heart attitude, Kline makes it clear that being competitive is just as important.
“It isn’t winning at all costs,” Kline said, “but the level of student athlete that we’re getting now, the year-round training and opportunity that these kids are getting now, their expectations, when they come into our program, winning’s part of it. So we have to change with the times and I think that’s the direction we’re heading.
“They need that opportunity to compete. They need to be in the ballgame. They deserve the opportunity to compete. They deserve the opportunity to win. They’re athletes. So it’s our job, as an athletic program, to provide that for them and support them in those efforts.”
Facilities have taken a hit lately, and its impact on recruiting is undeniable. But the Board of Trustees and the Administration see the current growing pains as temporary and necessary for the common and long-range good of the university.
“I think it’s unfortunate that we have had to displace baseball and soccer,” said Gregory Dewey, who, as part of his responsibilities as university provost, oversees athletics. “We have a small campus and we’re not going to grow within the confines of the city. I view it as growth pains, and, unfortunately, athletics has taken the bullet in this period. It’s not a lack of commitment. It is just an uncomfortable period of time where you can’t do everything at once, and I see it as more of a staging issue. It’s been unsettling for some of the coaches, but at the end of the day, my sense is they want it to work; they’re going to be good soldiers.”
In the end, it’s clear that when Campus West construction is completed, the athletic facilities at La Verne will have improved dramatically. As is the case at many other colleges and universities, those facilities will not be right in the middle of campus, but they will be more modern, improved and NCAA-compliant.
Who knows? The term “out at La Verne” may one day soon be a compliment.