By Bill Sheehan
In his 33 years of coaching at Cal State Fullerton, John Elders has watched the university garner many awards. But he says its newest trophy signals "a golden age for Titan Athletics."
Fullerton recently won its first-ever Big West Commissioner's Cup, which is awarded to the school with the best overall finishes in the conference's 17 sports championships.
Five Titan teams reached their respective NCAA tournaments during the 2017-18 season, the highest total for a single year in program history.
"I'm very excited about where our athletic program is. And as an alum and a coach, I couldn't be happier," said Elders, who just completed his 30th year as head coach for the men's and women's cross country and track and field teams.
There are myriad reasons for Fullerton's climb to the top of the Big West sports pyramid, but many coaches say the success starts with one person.
"[Athletic Director] Jim Donovan has been the key," said Elders, whose men's track team has won back to back Big West titles. "He has set the tone since he arrived here. It starts with Jim, then filters down through his staff and head coaches."
Elders cites the 2014 passage of the Student Success Initiative, which boosted funding for athletic facilities, personnel and scholarships, as another major factor for the unprecedented success.
"[Former Fullerton President] Dr. Mildred Garcia and Jim [Donovan] really helped with passing the SSI," said Elders. "And President [Fram] Virjee has been giving our teams amazing support. He really gets it – how important athletics is to a campus."
Coach Kelly Ford, whose softball team has won three straight Big West championships, said Donovan has been a catalyst for change.
"He expects us to chase championships, and recruit coaches and athletes with character," she said of Donovan, who was hired in 2012. "Day in and day out, he's working for the coaches, the school and the community. You want to do well for him."
An emphasis on finding the right personnel
Hiring and recruiting has become a top priority for the athletic department, said men's soccer coach George Kuntz, who has led his team to NCAA postseason play in three of the past four years.
"We tried to create the right culture by bringing in the right staff and the right student-athletes," said Kuntz, who is beginning his fifth year at Fullerton. "There are a lot of parts to the culture. How do you approach each game? What kind of schedule do you have? How you approach the regular season vs. the postseason? Our goal is to get ourselves better every year."
The human element also is vital for Demian Brown, whose women's soccer teams have competed in the NCAA tournament in three of the past four years.
"The biggest part is surrounding myself with good people, having the right student-athletes and the right people on staff. No amount of skill or talent can take the place of that," said Brown, who is beginning his 12th year as head coach.
"Winning helps recruiting, but Cal State Fullerton recruits itself. The university, its location and the academic faculty are the biggest factors for recruits. Winning is just the icing on the cake."
Character and work ethic are valued
Dedrique Taylor, who guided the men's basketball team this year to its first NCAA tournament appearance in 10 seasons, recalled the challenges he faced when he arrived in the spring of 2013.
"After a while, we knew we needed to improve the type of student-athlete we recruited," said Taylor. "Our staff began to pursue student-athletes that were academically inclined, high character people who had a strong work ethic and played unselfish basketball. This has given us a great opportunity to build a successful team."
Unlike Taylor, Rick Vanderhook inherited a highly successful program when he came aboard as baseball head coach in the summer of 2011. His job was to maintain the winning ways of Fullerton's flagship sport, and he's done just that. Vanderhook has led the Titans to NCAA postseason appearances in all seven years of his tenure.
"Jim [Donovan] talks once a year with the team and asks our players, 'What do you want your legacy to be?' " said Vanderhook. "Our locker room has a long list of conference titles on the wall. We ask our players, 'When you go by that wall, do you want to be on it too?'
"We establish our guidelines. And our upperclassmen teach the younger guys how to go about doing things the right way. That's part of our culture."
Ford, who just wrapped up her sixth year as softball coach, also values the importance of her upperclassmen.
"Team first – we live that day in and day out," said Ford. "We couldn't do that without the leadership of our seniors. They teach the underclassmen. We recruit women that really want to strive and leave the program better than they left it."
'We do it for the past, present and future'
Fullerton's student-athletes are aware they're contributing to the upswing in Titan athletics.
Chris Prescott, 22, of Anaheim Hills, an outfielder on this year's baseball team, said the athletes use the school's underdog status as a rallying cry.
"All of our teams are coming along and really putting Cal State Fullerton on the map," said Prescott, who earned a communications degree with a concentration in advertising and is seeking a job in sales or sports marketing. "We're kind of under the radar, so we always have something to prove as Titans. People are going to start hearing our name a lot more."
Nano Oronoz, who will be a senior forward on this fall's women's soccer team, said the student-athletes know they are playing a role in the school's history.
"We expect a lot out of each other, said Oronoz, 21, of La Habra, who expects to graduate this winter. "Because of our winning streak in soccer, we have a lot to lose. We do it for the past, present and future."
Oronoz, who is majoring in human communications studies major and plans a career in healthcare and wellness, said student-athletes bond over their shared experiences.
"We have a special connection that we don't have with everyone else in the classroom," said Oronoz. "We socialize and attend other teams' games. When one team wins, then another one, we get hyped up."
Prescott said all of the student-athletes want to see their fellow performers have success. "When you see an athlete from another sport come out to your game, that's a sign of respect."
Coaches enjoy supporting their Fullerton counterparts as well.
"A culture of teamwork is playing out across the sports – we're there for each other and helping each other grow," said basketball's Taylor. "One of our biggest fans is Hooky. And I go support his baseball program too."
Kuntz said he attends a wide spectrum of Fullerton sports, often accompanied by his daughter Sevilla. "My focus is on my job and my family, but I try to follow all the sports."