Keeping the ball in play, ULV volleyball men’s team members continue practices at the La Verne Club West Volleyball facility. / photo by Adam Omernik

Keeping the ball in play, ULV volleyball men’s team members continue practices at the La Verne Club West Volleyball facility. / photo by Adam Omernik

by Matt Paulson
photography by Adam Omernik

The University of La Verne men’s volleyball team was cut summer 2004, a shot to the heart of the team and its alumni that continues to sting. “To this day, I’m still waiting for that article in the Campus Times newspaper to come out and say, ‘President Morgan admits mistake; men’s volleyball returns in triumph,’” says Shane Haldeman, a four-year player and 2003 graduate. “But, each day, it’s getting bleaker and bleaker.”

To date, there has been no success in reinstating the men’s volleyball team. The decision will stand. Two factors—a lack of money and the conference-independent schedule of the men’s volleyball team—stand out as the administration’s justifications from the start, but do those involved know the whole story? “Right now, I feel like we’re going to regret the decision down the line,” says Michael Frantz, professor of mathematics at ULV. “I think it was a mistake. You’ll have to dig a bit deeper if you want to find out what’s really going on.”

For the men’s volleyball team, it all started June 24, 2004, when Morgan Coberly got a call from the Athletics Department requesting he set up a meeting with Athletic Director Chris Ragsdale. Coberly recalls his paranoia at the request: “I called my mom that night and said, ‘Tell me I’m overreacting.’ I told her, ‘They’re going to cut us.’”

After a congenial opening, Ragsdale dropped the bomb. The athletic program at La Verne was to undergo severe budget cuts in response to University fiscal struggles. Enrollment had been down the past year, and administration handed down a requirement that all departments must cut 9 percent of their operating budget, “from the President down to the accounting office,” treasurer Avo Kechichian says. “It was up to the specific departments on how to make those cuts.”

So the decision was passed to Ragsdale. One of his first moves was to look at the school’s Athletic Mission Statement. “Who is it that you say you are?” Ragsdale asks, pointing to the statement. “Who is it that you profess to be? And we say that, ‘We believe that the Athletic Department should support students in their efforts to reach a high level of performance by providing them with facilities, equipment, competent staff and competitive opportunities commensurate with the SCIAC and similar NCAA Division III institutions.’”

This logic led him to re-evaluate men’s volleyball. “It sat out of who we stated we were, and what we were doing for 19 other programs,” Ragsdale says in an interview attended by ULV Director of Public Relations Charles Bentley, at Ragsdale’s request.

Because the men’s volleyball team acts as the only conference-independent squad in the program, the Athletic Director saw it as a quick way to cut $23,000, he told Coberly. “I was really mad at first because he was trying to calm me down,” Coberly says. “He tried to go into, ‘We have to be real professional about this. We have to see what’s best for the students.’ And I said, ‘Don’t talk to me about my guys. You don’t know them. You’re screwing them right now.’”

Coberly immediately told assistant coach Will Paulson and the two ignited a phone tree, which eventually reached Jake Swann, former ULV player, now a city of Glendora police officer: “One or two phone calls were made. And within about an hour, everyone from the volleyball team, past and present, knew about it. I think it was Will who called me first. And the first thing I did was call some of the guys from the team, and they all already knew.” Once word spread, the responses on behalf of the team began to flood President Morgan’s office, prompting him to call a forum.

“Save ULV Men’s Volleyball, July 7, Founders Hall, 10 a.m.”proclaimed the banner that hung proudly in front of the Student Center. The banner, in addition to a stack of flyers sprinkled throughout campus, helped spread the word in the hope that the program could be salvaged.

Airborne for a moment, Will Paulson, former ULV volleyball assistant coach, rises above the painful cutting of a program. / photo by Adam Omernik

Airborne for a moment, Will Paulson, former ULV volleyball assistant coach, rises above the painful cutting of a program. / photo by Adam Omernik

The open forum hosted a supportive group, including current players, alumni, parents, other ULV coaches, some Bonita High School players, coached by Leopard alumni, and a few University professors. Many alumni could not make it due to the short notice of the meeting, so the coaches compiled a list of all the players who could not make it and why.

After opening statements read by President Morgan and Ragsdale, player after player poured his heart out about what the team and the program meant to him. “I welled up a couple of times,” recalls Swann. “And there were other guys that, in talking, got choked up.” A few players attempted to bring up the financial issue, which was said to have prompted the cut, a move that was immediately squelched. “As soon as we started talking about numbers, they just got shot down,” Swann says. “They were very obtuse to anything that had to do with the budget.”

“I already knew about the money,” University of La Verne President Stephen Morgan says. “I think the open forum was to give people the opportunity to voice their opinions and their concerns and to see if there was a piece of information that we were missing in our deliberations. Had we not seen something?”

The forum ended as President Morgan had to tend to other business, and the team went to Warehouse Pizza on D Street, a staple of the players’ diet while playing. The team’s mood at Warehouse screamed optimism. “I left there saying, if he doesn’t get this,” recalls former head coach Jack Coberly, 63, who coached the team to a national Molten USA championship in 1999, retiring at the end of 2003, “he’s a hard-hearted bastard.”

“I thought, after that forum, if they didn’t make the decision quickly, it’s going to be bad,” recalls Morgan Coberly, 30, who took over as head coach in 2004, after helping his dad lead the team to a third-place finish in 2003 as co-head coach. “And then, time went on.” Finally, the Athletic Department sent out notices via snail-mail, stating the final cut of the men’s volleyball program; Coberly received his Xerox copy two days later.

In retrospect, former Leopard players express skepticism about the forum. They don’t feel that they were being listened to, almost as if it were a show; lip service. “It seemed like the whole time they were talking to us,” says Tom Hilton, former ULV player, now a current student at Southwestern University School of Law, “they were stabbing us in the back with the other hand.”

More than a year after the final determination was made, some inside and outside of the volleyball program continue to question the reasons behind the decision, mainly the financial justification, the first criterion. They see money as a red herring.

At the forum, members of the University community and the greater community of La Verne responded financially. At the open forum, Julius Walecki, associate professor of economics at ULV, with no connection to the volleyball program, offered a one-time sum of $3,000 from his paycheck to help maintain the team for another year. Wayne Enderle, who employs many of the former players at Club West, a youth volleyball club based out of La Verne, offered $5,000. “We have nothing at stake,” Enderle says. “It didn’t affect us one way or another. These are guys that we didn’t know, but I felt bad for them.”

But no effort came close to that of Michael Frantz, who offered to skip the ‘04-’05 faculty retreat, which has a $25,000 budget, and donate the funds to the program. At the open forum, Frantz offered the money unofficially, as he had to run it by the faculty first, a move he saw as a formality. “I was pretty sure that if all it would take to keep the team would be to come up with money, I think [the faculty] would be willing to give it up for the year.” But after talking with other faculty throughout the school, Frantz says it became apparent to him that money was not the sole issue. “It’s fair to say and safe to say that money played a very small role.”

Given the funds that were promised, as well as the fact that the coaches offered to coach for free (the team states that 55 percent of their budget is coaches’ pay), the team had enough to fund itself for the next two years without asking for donations. Fundraising could have brought in more money with the alumni support. “My dad said he’d pitch in money,” Swann says. “He’s like, ‘Five, 10 grand, no problem.’”

This would not have been the first time an outside financial tap saved a program. In 1997, due to a budget shortfall of $800,000 and new gender-equity requirements, Cal State Northridge dropped soccer, baseball, volleyball and swimming. Former California State Senator Cathie Wright proposed a plan to save the baseball and men’s volleyball programs for one year, offering to reserve $586,000 for the two sports. Originally, Cal State Northridge President Blenda Wilson feared “serious unintended consequences” but eventually came around to support the plan. Surviving today, Cal State Northridge volleyball was ranked fourth in the nation at the Division I level at the beginning of 2005.

“I didn’t know about that,” President Morgan replies. “I didn’t know about Northridge.”

In addition, with the donations already received and the ability to fundraise, Joel Harworth, ULV volleyball alumnus, now a financial planner with Wescom Credit Union, says the money could have been invested, providing the possibility of continued financial support. He looked at some very low-risk bonds, one run by Franklin Templeton called the Franklin Income Fund. “Realistically, by putting in two years’ worth of budget, we would not have been able to make the program last for three or four years, but, with the ability to fundraise, it would give us the ability to grow. That’s the key.” Eventually, by providing its own funds, the men’s volleyball program entertained the opportunity of consistently funding itself.

“But, again, it boils down to long-term focusing resources on the SCIAC sports,” President Morgan responds. “Would the community want to support men’s volleyball indefinitely at that level? My thought was no. To me, it wasn’t just about, could we raise the money? It was becoming a philosophical issue of where do we put our resources as an institution? How do we focus on what we do best? So I wasn’t swayed. We’re Division III. Athletics cost us here. They don’t bring us any revenue.”

But Claudio Muñoz, ULV associate professor of accounting, does not see the correlation behind men’s volleyball and losing money. “I think this program was indirectly causing the University to bring in more money than it required to go out.” Muñoz says that each student who came here because of men’s volleyball earned the University revenue, and cutting the program provided the risk of those students leaving, losing that revenue. “That’s why I consider myself to be baffled.”

“When talking about utilizing money, one cannot talk about surviving year-to-year as a volleyball team, says Charles Bentley, who worked more than 20 years as a newspaper sports journalist, his longest stint being at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, covering regional college sports teams. “ULV could not sustain having a team this year, not the next year. The financial bottom line is that ULV needed the resources to sustain the team for 10 years. We did not have those 10 year resources.”

“It was a hard, hard decision for the Athletic Department, Chris Ragsdale and the administration,” says Bentley. “I was in the meetings and watched as the president sought every avenue to make it work. Ultimately, this was the best avenue to reach the mandated budget cut and to stay true to our SCIAC philosophy.”

Players say that the exposure the team received while playing Division I schools tapped into a market the school’s athletic program did not usually see. The men’s volleyball team appeared in USA Today in the national volleyball poll, a circulation of more than 2 million. “You’d have to spend way more than $23,000 to get the kind of advertising that our team gave,” Coberly says. “That’s national recognition.”

But President Morgan disagrees. “I would say it brought limited exposure,” he says. “In the whole scheme of our coverage, men’s volleyball was a fairly small percentage in the actual column inches that we would generate in a year for our athletic program. It was a novelty item.”

La Verne did compete with Division I and II NCAA teams plus NAIA teams. With a very limited travel budget, the players needed to take on the region’s top division teams. Most, like Division I UCLA, USC and Stanford, were not at ULV’s level of competition. But La Verne took these high power universities on because Division III men’s volleyball is not a sport supported by other similar area universities.

None of the SCIAC schools, of which La Verne is a member, has a team. Almost all of the Division III programs that compete in men’s volleyball are east of the Mississippi River. There is La Verne and U.C. Santa Cruz in Division III west of the Rockies. Handily, every year, if La Verne could beat U.C. Santa Cruz, it could go to the Molten USA Championship Final Four playoffs. And La Verne had remarkable talent to take it to the Banana Slugs year-after-year. The teams were the only two NCAA Division III volleyball programs in the Western Region, meaning every time they met up, the road to the Molten USA Division III Final Four championships was on the line.

Note that the words “NCAA Division III Championship” are not used. The teams that go to the Molten USA championship are not recognized as NCAA champions. NCAA Division III does not sponsor an NCAA championship program. Instead, the championship rounds are sponsored by an an athletic ball company, Molten USA.

In 2005, Juniata College came away with the championship in a 3-1 win over Carthage, but its title remains unofficial, because at this stage, the NCAA sponsors an all-division title in men’s volleyball, not one specific to the Division III level. NCAA rules require a minimum of 50 schools competing at a certain level before a National Championship tournament will be set up for that level. Right now, the NCAA only lists 41 schools as competing at the NCAA Division III level in men’s volleyball. With not enough Division III teams to participate, a true NCAA hosted championship does not exist.

The Molten USA championship was formed to give a culminating event for Division III men’s volleyball. While the NCAA sponsors a national championship for men’s volleyball, programs from all three divisions compete for just four berths. “The NCAA draws the line there where the cost of travel, officiating, status are not big enough to host a tournament,” says Bentley. “It is great that Molten USA sponsors a culminating tournament for Division III, but it is not recognized by the NCAA.

“Everyone is very proud of the men’s volleyball program,” continues Bentley. We were able to compete at a level beyond what Division III is. But there is no true championship for our level. Every other sport has a Division III championship except men’s water polo. But in men’s water polo there is a SCIAC conference championship. The majority of the SCIAC schools have water polo teams, and there are other West Coast Division III teams to add to the competition. This scenario did not exist in men’s volleyball. With a finite budget, you have to support the ideals and goals of your athletic program. The ideals and goals of ULV are to be competitive in the SCIAC program.”

Will Paulson, former assistant coach for the beleaguered University of La Verne men’s volleyball team, participates in team scrimmages at the Club West Volleyball facility. / photo by Adam Omernik

Will Paulson, former assistant coach for the beleaguered University of La Verne men’s volleyball team, participates in team scrimmages at the Club West Volleyball facility. / photo by Adam Omernik

The Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference holds California Institute of Technology, California Lutheran University, Claremont McKenna College, Harvey Mudd College, Scripps College, Occidental College, Pomona College, Pitzer College, the University of Redlands, Whittier College and the University of La Verne.

“The ULV Athletic Department had to look at it and say, ‘Where could our resources best be used,’“ says Bentley. “Men’s Volleyball was not a SCIAC conference sport; it was not a sport we could compete at in our level in Division III in the West. And we could not afford to go to the Midwest and the East Coast to regularly play the other 40 teams at the Divison III level. ULV could barely afford to play Division I, II, and NAIA teams on the West Coast. We asked, ‘How can we keep it competitive and make it good for all our student athletes.’ We needed to be competitive; we needed more resources than we had. The Athletic Department wanted to be competitive in those sports that we now have in the SCIAC conference. The financial resources needed to go in that direction. “At the same time, Chris Ragsdale was told he had to cut the budget. At the start, the budget was as lean as it could be. To cut the budget meant to cut a sport to reach the called-for kind of numbers. He had to do it, so he looked at his Athletic Department to find the sports that did not fit in our philosophy, our intent. Only one sport stood out—that was men’s volleyball.” Adds Bentley, “Our athletic budget is cut beyond the bone. The number of sports we offer compared to the amount spent is disproportionate. ULV offers more sports than the budget allows. Many other universities offer fewer sports opportunities and spend much less money, proportionally, than ULV does.”

Bentley says that men’s volleyball has not caught on as a SCIAC sport for two reasons: The dearth of regional men’s volleyball high school programs and gender equity. He notes that even at the high school level there is a limited number of schools that offer men’s programs. Conversely, women’s volleyball is very popular. University men’s programs, he says, come down to the budget. As for gender equity, universities are mandated to offer equal athletic team opportunities for men and women. “No women’s sport correlates to football, with its 70-80 male members,” he says. “Many SCIAC schools have looked at women’s volleyball to balance out gender equity. A men’s volleyball program eradicates any advantages, since most collegiate sports are matched with men’s teams and women’s teams.”

Despite the ULV administration’s logic for cutting the program, there continues to be misunderstanding and hard feelings. Rick Simon refused to run again for his position as chair of the Intercollegiate Athletics Committee—a position he had held for about 13 years—citing the cutting of the men’s volleyball program as part of his decision. Although team sources say someone from the ULV Admissions Department spoke up at the open forum, no one from that Department felt comfortable speaking on the record about it.

“You listen to Morgan, and you listen to Ragsdale,” Morgan Coberly says, “when they’re talking to you, you’re just saying, ‘That’s not true.’” So if there were other reasons behind the decision, what are they?

Objections to how the program was being run could have factored in, said a member of the Athletic Department, who wished to remain unidentified, a claim Ragsdale refuted. “Morgan and I really worked together less than one year. To say that I was pleased or displeased, it’s not really fair for me to comment. Had we been able to continue the program, I can say that I wasn’t looking to make a change in leadership.”

But Marilyn Oliver, director of the Athletic Training Education Program, says, “From the team administration, I’m not sure volleyball was always as organized as it should have been.” Despite this, Oliver supported the program and was disappointed with the decision to cut it. “I enjoyed the men’s volleyball team,” Oliver says. “Teams have energy. The men’s volleyball team has energy. With the extraordinary effort of the players and coaches to keep it for one more year, I was disappointed in the decision to drop it immediately. There may be stuff we don’t know. There might have been a lot of information that wasn’t put out there. There’s got to be more to it, and I don’t know what it is.”

Bentley says thought was given to one farewell season. “What it really came down to was, ‘Is this a kind decision, or is this a kind idea? Something humane or something right?’ The truth is we had to determine what is the best opportunity for these students to compete. By giving them one final season, that would not have been kind. Certainly, that would not have been fair to these students or to the memory of the program.”

Through it all, Morgan Coberly says he was surprised by the lack of support he received from the other coaches. “That was so disappointing,” Coberly says. “If I see them around, they pretend like they don’t see me. It’s amazing. The feeling I get is that I did something wrong, like I’m cancer or something, and they don’t want to get it.” Cres Gonzalez, head men’s soccer coach, refused to comment on anything involving the cut, saying, “I’m trying to get the soccer program going. It’s hard enough as it is.”

“There was a fear factor going on there,” Jack Coberly concludes. But Julie Kline, head women’s basketball coach, says she fears no repercussion. “Personally, I do not fear reaction from our administration,’’ Kline responded via e-mail, at her request. “I can only speak on behalf of myself.’’

No matter the speculation behind the decision, it has provided a rippling effect on the volleyball community. Some community college coaches say their players now have nowhere to go if they cannot play Division I. Tom Pestolesi, head coach at Irvine Valley College, planned on sending three players to La Verne before the program was cut. “Now these kids are out of luck, and they’re not playing anywhere. They’ll probably never play in college.”

Chuck Cutenese, head coach at Orange Coast College, had a much more storied history with La Verne. He actually played men’s volleyball at La Verne his senior year, transferring over from Chapman after the program there was cut. As coach at Orange Coast, Cutenese has sent 10 players to La Verne, including Morgan Coberly and David Doxey, who lost his senior year as a result of the drop. “It’s unfortunate that we’ve sent so many kids to La Verne, and that pipeline is no longer there,” Cutenese laments. “I’ve got one less avenue to direct them to.” Last year, Cutenese planned on sending two players to La Verne, but because of the cut and its short-notice, they were forced to stay at Orange Coast and take a year of play off. “It’s a very unfortunate situation for both of them.”

President Morgan disagrees with La Verne’s prerogative as the place for community college athletes to go. “I guess I didn’t assume it was La Verne’s responsibility to take care of that specific need,” he says. “It just wasn’t a big sport. What are the Division III schools? It’s one in California. I just didn’t feel it was our responsibility to keep men’s volleyball alive in Southern California.”

But this decision does not just reach Southern California, nor just the West Coast. According to the CEO of USA Volleyball Doug Beal, it touched the entire international volleyball community. “Every program is significant. It’s significant to the sport of men’s volleyball. It’s significant to Olympic sports in general,” Beal says, stating that there are only about 80-85 collegiate programs in the nation. After learning of the cut, Beal wrote President Morgan an e-mail and helped mobilize coaches across the country. “The loss is quite hurtful and very disappointing. La Verne has been such a successful Division III men’s volleyball program. To have it kind of pulled out from under them is a terrible thing.”

“Yes, ULV men’s volleyball will be missed,” says Bentley. “Coaches will tell you, ‘We need more teams to compete in NCAA III like ULV. Naturally, the more teams that compete, the more popular it will be become.” If 50 teams compete in Division III, then a championship tournament will be sponsored by the NCAA. But Bentley says there was no reaction from the NCAA when the ULV men’s volleyball program was cut. “The local sports writers had a flurry of one-day stories: ‘Why did you do that when you had the success you had in the mythical championship,’” he says. “The biggest out cry came from the club programs and the NAIA programs, of which ULV was part of until 1982.”

Regardless of these consequences, the men’s volleyball program is no more. And the team has been forced to grin and bear it. Well, at least bear it. Two players immediately left ULV fall 2004. Ricky Estrada managed to pull some strings with the coaches at the University of Hawaii to get in for the fall 2004 semester. Trying to walk on to the volleyball team, he was eventually cut in favor of three returning players trying out for the same spots. Matt Cornell transferred to the University of Pacific to play after he heard about the decision. However, Cornell was not as fortunate as Estrada. “I missed every deadline possible, thanks to the wonderful administration at ULV,” he says. So Cornell transferred to Pacific at the end of the fall 2004 semester.

“It’s weird,”Morgan Coberly says. “I still don’t know why it was cut. If they had given some cold, hard fact that was indisputable, we’d be sad, we’d be mad, but at least then we’d have that fact, but it’s so hard. It’d be like a family member dying, and you never found out why or how. They were gone. You’re mad and upset about it, but the real killer is that there’s no closure. And that’s kind of how I feel.”

Coberly recalls talking to his team after losing the national championship in New York in 2002, a tournament they entered as the overwhelming favorite. “I said, ‘The thing that you’ll remember is the bond. That’s what lasts. It hurts really bad right now, but more important than the national championship is the friends that you’ve made, and memories that you have because you’re not going to lose those.’ Now it’s like that for everybody. It’s not dead because we still all have each other. All my friends are La Verne volleyball people; people I played with, and people I coached. Those memories and those bonds will never die for me.”

In 2002, the team had been ranked No. 1 throughout the season. In the seven years preceding the cut, the team had not been ranked any lower than No. 7 in the national Division III poll. ULV won the Molten USA National Championship in 1999 and finished second in 1998 and 2002. At 2004 season end, the team was ranked in the top five for 2005.

“It’s not just volleyball. It’s about growing up and being part of a thing that’s bigger than yourself. I have a little girl that looks up to Nate [Michael] and Will [Paulson] like they’re uncles. That’s incredible. That doesn’t happen to people that just go to this school and aren’t part of a team,” Swann adds at the end of the interview, continuing to his former teammates after the tape recorder was off: “It eats at your heart. They don’t know how it affects people. It’s stupid. It’s just stupid.”

And although the feelings of sentimentality probably will remain forever, nothing matches the feelings of bitterness held by a team that feels—to this day—that their school simply did an injustice to them.

“I am so unbelievably bitter at the University that the rest of my career will be so unfulfilling that I do not look forward to it,” junior Adam Hilton says. Adam came to La Verne, despite being recruited by numerous schools to play football, because of his older brother Tom’s experience on the volleyball team. “And the irony is that I have the president and athletic director to thank for that, the two people whom an athlete should be able to trust with anything.”

“I can certainly understand why any player on the team, why Morgan and Jack Coberly, would feel betrayed by the University,” President Morgan responds. “If I were one of them, I would feel betrayed by La Verne, and that’s fair. We pulled the rug out from under them.”

“This was a tough choice,” adds Bentley. “There is never any good that comes from a choice like this. But in terms of all our student athletes, it was the right decision.”

“I had to make some decisions,” Ragsdale says. “Because of the hurt that it causes, you hate to have to make those decisions, but I won’t apologize for those decisions.”

Staff member research and interviews contributed to this story.