The field is set for more success next year after UC Merced student-athletes earned top honors and played to impressive crowds during the debut season of varsity sports.
Last fall, more than 50 student-athletes competed in men’s basketball, women’s volleyball and men’s and women’s cross country — the Bobcats’ first season in the California Pacific Conference of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).
“We have a great group of student-athletes, coaches and staff who worked extremely hard this season,” said David Dunham, the campus’ director of recreation and athletics.
“All of our teams excelled and our student-athletes were recognized as players of the week and all-conference team selections,” he said. “Our students and the Merced community came out to support our teams in truly amazing numbers.”
Dunham plans to build on that success next year, when the campus also adds women’s soccer and women’s basketball to the roster of varsity sports. Coaches are doing well in recruiting, he said.
“We do have a lot of attributes to the campus that are very appealing,” Dunham said. “That includes the opportunity for a student-athlete to make an immediate impact. And we have the UC education to sell — that’s pretty powerful.”
This year, teams posted modest win-loss records. But each turned in memorable performances that will help establish a proud tradition for UC Merced’s athletics program.
The men’s basketball team finished 5-7 in conference and 6-15 overall, but junior guard Aki Chambers led the league in scoring and was voted to the Cal Pac All-Conference first team. Javon Barrino earned honorable mention.
“The bulk of our talent is coming back next season,” Dunham said. “We’re excited.”
The women’s volleyball team didn’t have a winning season, but freshman Valeria Martinez was named first team all-conference. Teammates Brigitte Mayes and Alexandria Curtis were selected honorable mention.
Dunham praised the team’s fighting spirit and improvement. Next year looks strong, with Coach Allen McCreary landing all six recruits the team targeted.
“That says a lot about Allen as a coach and our campus in general,” Dunham said.
The men’s and women’s cross country teams ran strong throughout the season and featured standout performances. Daniel Pena, Jillian Foster and Alexandria Curtis each earned all-conference honors.
“That team has a lot of potential for next year,” said Dunham, who also hopes to host a cross country event next season.
One highlight of the Bobcats’ varsity sports debut was outstanding attendance, he said. Women’s volleyball averaged more than 300 fans per game and men’s basketball routinely drew crowds of more than 400.
“We learned this year that our campus and community love to support our students,” Dunham said. “Even our club teams have great crowds.”
Despite the rosy attendance figures, Dunham plans to step up marketing for next season. He said he still runs into some people who haven’t heard about UC Merced varsity sports.
“That is a big challenge — letting folks know we have athletics here,” he said.
Every varsity Bobcats team will be eligible for postseason play next year, and Dunham expects some teams to qualify.
“Overall, we had a great first season of competition and are looking forward to next year,” he said.