August 06, 2003 11:00 pm
SUCCESSFUL SPORT: (Above) The Eastern men's cross country team finished second in the nation last year, with the help of Brian Crowl (left) and Alex McGladrey (right), and has a legitimate shot at an NAIA national championship this year, despite the lack of athletic scholarships. ().
SUCCESSFUL SPORT: (Above) The Eastern men's cross country team finished second in the nation last year, with the help of Brian Crowl (left) and Alex McGladrey (right), and has a legitimate shot at an NAIA national championship this year, despite the lack of athletic scholarships. ().

By Raenelle Kwock

Observer Staff Writer

Eastern Oregon University quarterback Aaron Hazel misses competing for a conference championship.

"We feel we don't have a home," Hazel said. "We don't have a conference championship we're playing for. Everybody on our team is confident in our ability and skill level."

Eastern football plays as an independent. Eastern once tried to join the NCAA Div. III Northwest Conference for football, but was denied. Football is one of the few sports at Eastern in which the team does not belong to a conference.

Hazel, who is on the EOU Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, said the biggest issue discussed by the committee this past year was NCAA versus NAIA affiliation.

Jim Tooke, SAAC adviser, said the creation of the committee was a major event in Eastern athletics last year. He said the school's dual affiliation is a critical issue.

"The most immediate problem with this is that we are under the more stringent restrictions of both with regard to scheduling, eligibility, facilities and the like," Tooke said.

"Our football team, for example, usually opens with two weeks practice against teams (that) have already played one game, maybe two, and have many more days of practice in. The same in other sports, though it is most extreme in football."

Eastern has an affiliation with NCAA Division III for football and NAIA for eight sports, excluding rodeo.

Dual affiliation

Eastern athletic director Rob Cashell said he has found a lack of awareness among the community, coaches and parents of what dual affiliation means. He also said there is somewhat of an identity crisis on campus.

"We have not enjoyed what I would call consistent success in some of our areas," he said. "I think that can be directly pointed to the lack of knowledge and struggles that dual affiliation presents."

Since Eastern has NCAA Division III affiliation in football, it has to follow NCAA rules in all of its other sports except rodeo.


"Recruiting is scary," Eastern women's basketball and softball coach Anji Weissenfluh said. "Each year you don't know what caliber (of players) you can bring. You can't be selective."

She said recruits cannot come for a campus visit. Division III rules do not allow recruits to be evaluated on campus, so Weissenfluh must rely on video.

"We're not able to try them out and see them play basically," Weissenfluh said.

Under Division III rules, basketball has 25 games. The NAIA allows 32 games.

Eastern point guard Tricia Haddock, like Hazel a member of the student-athlete advisory committee, said the other Cascade Collegiate Conference teams are one step ahead of Eastern because they get an earlier start to their seasons.

"The big issue is (the number of) games," Haddock said.

Division III rules limit basketball practice to 21 weeks, while the NAIA allows 24.

As a Division III member, Eastern awards no athletic scholarships even though it competes in the NAIA. NAIA schools, which comprise the Cascade Collegiate Conference, can offer athletic scholarships.

Eastern women's volleyball coach Ryan Platt said he lost recruits this past year who needed some help financially. They went to NCAA Division I and II programs and made an immediate impact.

"It's amazing what I could do with a basic scholarship fund for my program," Platt said.

Eastern baseball coach Wes McAllaster said sometimes it comes down to money as to where a recruit ends up playing.

"They like what we have to offer and so forth," he said. "It comes down to a money issue. That's always going to be an issue with a kid going to school."

Hazel said that in addition to student aid, he would like to see more support for Eastern athletics from within the community.

"I'm surprised in a small town like La Grande — I'd think on a Saturday going to a college football game is something a family could do together," he said. "It's not very expensive."

He said it was tough last year with a new coaching staff and learning a new philosophy. The team went 1 and 9 in 2002.

"We haven't exactly done anything lately to bring them in," Hazel said. "I think this year we should change some of that."

Positive outlook

Eastern football does not have a tradition of success, but head coach Jim Fenwick looks for positives.

"I refuse to look at why that is," he said about the lack of winning seasons. "I feel we have real good kids. Good players — (but) not enough of them. Our goal is to make that a good, positive experience for them."

Eastern has an "attractive economic solution," Fenwick said. He said it does not cost much to attend the school because it is part of the Oregon state higher education system.

"I'm hoping to continue recruiting and build toward having success, which makes it easier year after year and make it a positive experience for athletes," Fenwick said.

Eastern men's basketball coach Art Furman looks for players who fit the school in areas that go beyond how they play on the court.

"Only certain types of people over 10 years made it," he said.

Coaches are not all negative about the situation, however. Furman has seen lots of ups and downs in his decade of coaching at Eastern, and says he continues to enjoy the challenge of coaching even with Eastern's limitations.

Platt said a lot of the volleyball players are on academic scholarships, so their desire to play volleyball is much higher because they're playing out of dedication and devotion to the sport.

"I think a good, right outlook is close in our future," Weissenfluh added. "I think we may have to wait and be patient with the new administration and be educated about what's best for Eastern."

Track and cross country

Eastern's most successful sports recently have been cross country and track. The men's team finished second in the nation last year, while the women's team was seventh.

Most of Eastern's success in track and cross country has come at the NAIA level.

Eastern track and cross country coach Ben Welch said dual affiliation is a distraction and he would like to see a single affiliation soon.

"For recruiting, it's not a good thing," he said.

Because there are no athletic scholarships, Welch recruits athletes on academics.

In the past, the Eastern men have had the highest GPA at national competition.

"We lived and died by that — the excellent student," Welch said.

One thing that does help Eastern's track program is its geography. Eastern has attracted many distance runners because of its location, and because there are nearby hills for training.

"It is very attractive to distance runners not to pound pavement all the time," Welch said.

Welch has coached for 13 years. Even though he feels the positives outweigh the negatives, he is concerned about his staff.

"Getting and keeping enough quality assistants" is the biggest challenge Welch faces in the future, he said.

Friday: The future of EOU's athletic program.