Make no mistake: Getting into the Big West Conference was a big deal, and a good deal, for Cal State Bakersfield athletics.
When the Roadrunners enter their new league in July 2020, they will align with regional rivals, some with whom they share longstanding histories.
They will have much better geographic alignment with their conference foes, experience friendlier travel to games, and can take advantage of Southern California in their own backyard both competitively and in recruiting circles.
Throughout CSUB’s journey — from Division II power, to 2006 independent in transition to Division I, to Western Athletic Conference member in 2013, to Big West member today — this is where the Roadrunners wanted to be all along.
“Out of my entire time at CSUB, the thing I am most excited about has been receiving and accepting an invitation to the Big West Conference,” said Athletics Director Ziggy Siegfried. “We are driven every day to make an immediate impact.”
Yet that’s where things could get challenging, at least initially, for the Roadrunners.
While the school’s headline program, men’s basketball, could be competitive right from the get-go, its non-revenue sports will likely be challenged considerably on the field of play.
“When you look back five years from now, I think they have a chance to be successful,” said former CSUB volleyball coach John Price. “But I don’t think it will necessarily be a smooth transition. It’s going to be difficult at the beginning.”
Take it from the top
The program that immediately comes to mind is Roadrunners baseball.
The Big West has historically been a powerhouse on the diamond, with national championship-caliber teams Long Beach State, Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara all making up the top half of the conference. Those programs recruit players — many of whom have next-level talent — from the massive Southern California talent pool.
CSUB head coach Jeremy Beard calls the Big West a top-five baseball conference.
“We are entering a league that has a well-established atmosphere and identity,” Beard said. “Top-caliber baseball. One of the top conferences in the nation.
“We’re trying to find a winning identity and now we’re asked to do it in one of the best leagues in the country.”
It will be a tall order for a Roadrunners program that’s had some pockets of success — an NCAA Tournament berth under coach Bill Kernen in 2015 and a competitive showing in that year’s regional round — but also appears behind the eight ball in terms of facilities and on-field talent.
Beard, going into his fourth year at CSUB and second year as head coach, said the school's baseball complex “doesn’t measure up to the league.”
Many Big West programs have state-of-the-art batting and training facilities, clubhouses and fan-friendly amenities, Beard said. At the moment the Roadrunners lack in all those areas, he said, noting that opposing teams must dress for games either at their hotel or on their bus.
“Very established from a facilities standpoint. They’ve been working on them for a number of years,” Beard said of Big West programs. “We’re still a program finding our identity when a lot of programs have already established theirs.”
Siegfried said the athletics department has targeted some upgrades: a batting facility, clubhouse, a shaded cover for the bleachers, restrooms and common facilities for fans.
Funding for those projects will come through fundraising and donor support, Siegfried said.
While Siegfried said relationships have been forged in the community and potential donors want to help, “All we need is the funds to go with it.”
Other amenities the baseball program could use are a jumbotron, an improved parking lot and equipment, Beard said.
“We’re aware of an issue,” Beard said. “If this is a priority to build something special within Kern County, then it’s going to take the people of Kern County to help us build the atmosphere that I think a lot of people are anticipating.”
What about the other sports?
Of course, many of CSUB’s programs could very well be challenged right out of the chute.
After making the NCAA Tournament last year, women’s volleyball struggled during the second half of the 2018 campaign and ultimately didn’t contend for a conference title.
That said, Big West volleyball is solid — an uptick from the Western Athletic Conference to be sure.
“Clearly a notch below the power-five conferences, but a couple notches above the WAC,” was how Price classified the league.
The Roadrunners softball program won just six games last year and finished 3-12 in WAC play. Now they enter a conference that almost will assuredly be better and had one team last season, Long Beach State, ranked No. 20 in nation. Ultimately, the Big West sent two programs with tradition — Long Beach State and Cal State Fullerton — to the NCAA Tournament in 2018.
In men’s soccer, the Roadrunners have some history in place — specifically, a Division II National Championship in 1997. The WAC has also been competitive in recent years — Seattle has been one of the league's better teams and traditional Mountain West programs Air Force and UNLV call the WAC home for men's soccer. Those schools help bring name recognition and quality play to the conference.
Still, the Big West won't be a slouch. The league's headliner is UC Santa Barbara, which won a Division I national championship in 2006.
CSUB women's soccer hasn't made an impact in the WAC, which has been fairly nondescript in recent years. Again, the Big West figures to be solid in this arena with programs such as Long Beach State, Cal Poly, UC Santa Barbara and UC Irvine dotting the schedule.
Price said experiencing Big West-caliber play first hand will be the best teaching tool for the Roadrunners moving forward.
“It’s one of those things — you don’t know it until you know it,” he said. “Once you go through that league once, it’s going to be much clearer in their heads.”
In a sense, this is nothing new — with every step up the ladder comes an increase in talent level, and CSUB has witnessed that firsthand.
Since 2010, when the Roadrunners became full-on Division I members, they went from competing for Division II championships in many of their athletics programs to being at the bottom of the totem pole. CSUB then went from being an independent Division I program — a nearly impossible task that was unsustainable — to joining the Western Athletic Conference. After some bumps in the road initially, the Roadrunners have become competitive, contended for some conference championships and qualified for NCAA Tournaments.
In all likelihood, the move to the Big West will have a similar look, feel and timeline.
“When you make transitions, there is that period you have to get up to speed in regards to competition,” Siegfried said. “I feel we’re much more established and sustainable than we were just a couple years ago. Scholarships, facilities, personnel, everything. However, we need to take it to the next level.”