At the conclusion of each softball season, the California Baptist University seniors remove their cleats and promptly place them on home plate of the field where they played their final game.
It’s a tradition that began a few years ago to not only signify the end of the respective careers, an end of an era, but also to represent the fact that those players left everything they had out on the field.
On May 25, 2011, CBU finished second at the NAIA Softball Championships in Orange Beach, Ala., with their seventh straight top four finish, and minutes later the four seniors carried out the tradition and left their cleats at home plate surrounded by the red Alabama clay.
Only this time, the move didn’t just signify the end of their decorated careers. As CBU’s final contest as an NAIA institution, it ushered out a remarkable 45-year relationship between CBU and the NAIA and ushered in a new era in the pursuit of athletic excellence with a move to the NCAA.
Then-California Baptist College joined the NAIA in 1969 and over the next 44 years made an impressive 125 national championship appearances beginning with the program’s first when men’s tennis finished second in 1974. That was the Lancers’ first of 22 national tournament appearances in a 30-year span.
In 1999, California Baptist University finally broke through with its first-ever NAIA National Championship, winning the 1999 NAIA Men’s Indoor Track and Field Championship.
What transpired from there was nothing short of remarkable as the Lancers, after making 22 national tournament appearances without a title in 30 years prior, proceeded to win 22 national championships throughout the next 13 years from 1999-2011.
The 1999 championship was indeed significant as it came five years into University President Ronald L. Ellis’s tenure at CBU and for all intents and purposes became the breakthrough and groundbreaking performance that set the stage for years to come.
The team was undermanned. It took just seven scoring athletes to the championships, didn’t have a home track to practice on and participated in just eight of the 20 events. Yet, in spite of it all, that squad of Lancers pursued excellence and it showed in a dominating performance as CBU won the championship by nearly 20 points.
It was a philosophy set forth by Dr. Ellis when he arrived in 1994 to raise the level of excellence across the campus, including athletics.
“All facets of this campus should reflect a high level of excellence from academics to athletics to the landscape,” said Ellis. “There’s a Biblical basis for seeing excellence as part of our ministry, and we need to be mission driven and be good stewards of our responsibilities. Enjoy the journey while pursuing excellence.”
Just weeks after track won its title, CBU won the first-ever NAIA Men’s Volleyball National Invitational Tournament Championship, the first of eight men’s volleyball championships in 13 years. Then just months after that, CBU launched its aquatics program and over the next 12 years, the men’s swimming and diving team never finished worse than second, winning four national titles, while the women’s swimming and diving team had 11 top two finishes and four national titles as well.
Indeed, an era of pursuing excellence had begun.
Women’s volleyball won back-to-back NAIA titles in 2004-05, finished second in 2007, made the semifinals in 2006 and 2008 and had seven straight years of reaching at least the quarterfinals. Softball made eight straight NAIA Tournament appearances staring in 2004, never finished worse than seventh, had seven top four finishes, was second three times and won it all in 2009.
One of the youngest programs in the department, women’s golf, which began competing in 2007, ran off three straight top three finishes starting in 2009 that culminated in a dramatic national championship in 2011.
In all, the Lancers’ 22 national championships were won by seven different sports and CBU won at least one championship each year from 2004-11. Of CBU’s current 20 sports, 17 of them were eligible for NAIA competition (NAIA does not sponsor water polo or cheerleading) and all 17 of them made at least one NAIA National Championship appearance and 15 of those 17 made multiple appearances since 1999.
On an individual level in that same span, CBU racked up 389 NAIA All-Americans, 138 NAIA Scholar-Athletes, nine NAIA National Coaches of the Year and eight NAIA Scholar Teams.
“Athletics ministers to multiple constituencies, but the key component is an effective coaching staff that fits the institution’s mission and buys into the vision,” said Ellis. “You get what you recruit in both athletes and coaches. It’s a challenging and tall order, but it’s also a privilege.”
CBU ended its affiliation with the NAIA at the conclusion of the 2011 season after 45 years. And although CBU’s pursuit of NAIA Championships has ended, the pursuit of excellence in athletics continues.
CBU and the transition to the NCAA series timeline
June 14 – Introduction to the series
June 18 – Moment No. 9 - 1999 Men's Water Polo
June 19 – Moment No. 8 - 2010 Baseball
June 20 – Moment No. 7 – 1974 Men’s Tennis
June 21 – Moment No. 6 – 2011 Women’s Golf
June 24 – Moment No. 5 – 2009 Softball
June 26 – Moment No. 3 – 2005 Women’s Volleyball
June 27 – Moment No. 2 – 2007 Men’s Volleyball
July 1 – A comprehensive look back at more than 45 years with the NAIA
July 8 – A look back at the last three years of transition to the NCAA