Fresno Pacific's NCAA membership delayed due to tennis violations

The Fresno BeeJuly 11, 2014 

Violations by the Fresno Pacific tennis program have cost the university immediate admittance into the NCAA.

The NCAA denied Fresno Pacific entrance as a full-time Division II member on Friday, citing a university-led investigation that uncovered violations by the Sunbirds men's and women's tennis programs under coach Neil Castro involving extra benefits, financial aid and unethical conduct.

While Fresno Pacific had just completed what was to have been the final year of a three-year probation period required to become a full D-II member, the university was saddled with another year of provisional status before it will be reconsidered for admittance.

"We take our commitment to NCAA legislation very seriously and believe that we acted with integrity throughout these circumstances," Athletic Director Leslie Schuemann said. "We were faced with a challenging situation and we knew it might end up costing us. But doing the right thing and running a clean program is more important at the end of the day.

"You can't control the honesty and integrity of every individual. One thing I can promise however is that our programs will be held to the highest standards and will follow the NCAA legislation fully. This is an area where we will not compromise, because it defines who we are."

Fresno Pacific on May 23 shut down both tennis programs for a year and Castro, who coached the teams since 2006, was placed on paid leave during the final month of an eight-week investigation before he was fired after the school year.

"I'd rather not comment on the situation," Castro said Friday. "I think what's been done has been done. I've moved on."

Without full NCAA status, Fresno Pacific will have to again pay for its travel expenses to compete at national championships for the upcoming school year (the NCAA helps pay for its members' travel expenses when competing in national postseasons). For the past three years, Sunbirds teams have competed for national titles in the National Christian College Athletic Association.

The exclusion also impacts Fresno Pacific seniors who won't get to compete in the NCAA. Division II is considered a more challenging and recognized level than the NCCAA and the Sunbirds' former national membership organization, the NAIA.

"It was our goal and we worked so hard for that," Schuemann said of joining the NCAA. "I was really disappointed. Not so much for me but our student-athletes. They went on this journey with us with the hopes next year they'd be competing for an NCAA Division II championship.

"I don't know if I was surprised," added Schuemann, who prior to working at Fresno Pacific spent five years with the NCAA's national office as the assistant director of academic and membership affairs. "I was hopeful. We took very specific actions so that it wouldn't continue. My hope was that they would see that and give us a favorable outcome."

The university plans to appeal the decision on multiple grounds, including the fact that the university displayed full institutional control. The university believes the violations were "limited in scope, the investigation was thorough and that action was taken swiftly," according to a news release sent Friday morning.

The membership committee's decision is not final until the NCAA D-II management council meeting July 21-22. Fresno Pacific then has 30 days to appeal the decision.

Schuemann, the Sunbirds' athletic director since January, investigated violations by the tennis program dating to fall 2011. That's when Fresno Pacific began its three-year provisional status while operating under D-II rules.

The tennis program has been one of Fresno Pacific's more successful programs, with the men's team winning two NAIA championships and the women winning one NAIA title. In 2013, the women won the NCCAA championship and the men finished as runners-up.

Past and present Sunbirds players came to Castro's defense, citing the team's success and their experiences playing for Castro.

"Even if Neil had acted irresponsibly -- which he did not -- where is the forgiveness that Christ preaches?" said Lloyd Bruce-Burgess, a former assistant and player for Castro. "I thought Fresno Pacific was supposed to be a Christian-based school.

"Turning the other cheek doesn't seem to be an option for Fresno Pacific tennis. But how many other people are dismissed so quickly from the university staff, faculty and students? Not many, I bet. I always had a feeling the administration had it out for the tennis team."

With Castro barred from attending competition or practices beginning in late April, the Fresno Pacific women went 10-15 this past spring and logged the first non-winning season in the program's nine years. The men's team went 19-7, but the athletic department elected not to send the squad to the postseason.

"Unfortunately, one program's decision to deviate from this commitment has potentially jeopardized everything our staff and student-athletes have worked toward," Fresno Pacific President Dr. Pete Menjares said. "Such blatant disregard for the regulations in place will not be tolerated. ... We are disappointed with the decision of the membership committee but we remain committed to the NCAA membership process."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6362, or @Banteola_TheBee on Twitter.

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