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Pima Community College athletics alternately struggle and flourish, thanks to ever-changing directives and a commuter-college atmosphere

As Stacy Iveson packs up her stuff and leaves her office in the gym at the Pima Community College west campus, she undoubtedly will walk past the two national championship trophies that her teams brought to Tucson in the past four years.

The trophies stand as a testament to the schizophrenic nature of Pima athletics--sometimes impressive, but almost always slipping under the local media radar; all too often underachieving, yet always holding the underlying potential for greatness, even on the national level.

Iveson's is a remarkable story of a local kid who made good on several levels, starring as an athlete in high school and at the University of Arizona, and then becoming a championship coach, first at the high school level and then at Pima. But now she is moving on--not upward to a four-year, Division I university, but laterally, to another junior college in Arizona, prompting the inevitable questions as to the nature, direction and dedication of the Pima athletic program.

The painful truth is that, in these parts, the mention of Pima Community College athletics is often met--even by the most die-hard of sports fans--with something between a shrug and a wince. Poorly publicized, poorly attended, almost-certainly underfunded and absolutely underappreciated, Pima Aztec sports have often been at the center of a story of disjointed focus--matching, and often suffering because of, the identity crisis of the school at large.

Set up to serve the needs of the growing population of Pima County, the school first opened its westside campus in 1970. As the population of the county grew, and sprawl set in, the governing board of Pima Community College decided that the best way to meet the needs of the burgeoning community was to establish branch campuses. And so it came to pass that the school has six branches and virtually no sense of community.

By most accounts, Pima does an excellent job of educating many of its 75,000 part- and full-time students. Its athletic department, on the other hand, has changed institutional direction and focus more times than anyone dares to count.

There was a time that it appeared on the verge of challenging the big four commuter schools in the Valley of the Sun--Mesa, Glendale, Phoenix and Scottsdale community colleges--as well as the outlying junior colleges (with dorms and more of a collegiate feel), including Eastern Arizona in Thatcher, Arizona Western in Yuma and Central Arizona near Casa Grande. Pima had great facilities (it still does), a large student population base and a location in a sports-crazed town.

Unfortunately, it would become clear over time that all of that sports fanaticism would be directed almost exclusively toward the 900-pound gorilla that is the University of Arizona.

Back and forth, Aztec athletics lurched, from pumping up their programs to de-emphasizing them, almost to the point of their becoming glorified intramurals--with discussions of eliminating sports altogether. In the past three decades, rarely has the Pima athletics program gone more than three or four years in one direction before being yanked off in another direction.

The most recent change came with the installation of Chancellor Roy Flores in 2003, who made no attempt to hide his disdain for sports programs, especially at a college like Pima. Flores brought in Robert Riza to be the athletic director, and the two pulled Pima in its most recent (and current) direction. It was decided that since Pima is a commuter school with no dorms and multiple campuses, there should be no need to bring in athletes from other towns, other states or other countries. It was determined that Pima would go with in-county athletes whenever possible, and that winning, while nice, was not the most important consideration for coaches and teams.

The blueprint for failure was there for anybody who cared to look. Back in the early 1970s, Cochise College in Douglas made a similar move.

The men's basketball team--Cochise at the time only offered men's basketball and baseball--was a power, loaded with players from all over the country. The Apaches had even challenged national champion Arizona Western for supremacy in the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference. But one year, a local kid from Douglas--a pretty good ballplayer for that part of the state--went out to the college and tried to make the team as a walk-on. He was turned away. His dad was a big shot in Cochise County politics, and questions were asked at high levels as to how the college had strayed so far from its mission. What eventually ensued was an overreaction for the ages, as it was decided that, from that point on, Cochise College would use only in-county athletes for its sports teams.

One year, three of the starting spots on the basketball team were filled by players from New York, Chicago and Detroit; the next year, those spots were manned by players from Bisbee, Bowie and Dragoon.

The rest of the teams in the ACCAC showed absolutely no mercy. Yavapai College, in Prescott, beat Cochise 135-45 with a lineup consisting of several players from Southern California--and this was in the early 1970s, before the three-point shot.

The Cochise basketball team went 0-54 over the next two years and never really came close to winning a game. The baseball team did slightly better, but the experiment was declared an utter disaster and abandoned. These days, the Cochise men's team is coached by former Salpointe player Jerry Carrillo and is again a national power with a roster consisting of a mix of players from Southern Arizona and other parts of the country.

It should be noted that Cochise County has only recently crept over the 100,000-population mark, and back in the 1970s, Sierra Vista wasn't much bigger than the mining towns of Douglas and Bisbee. Fielding competitive teams from a population base of around 80,000 (back then) was an enterprise doomed to failure.

There are those, however, who believe that it doesn't have to be so at Pima Community College.

"We have a population of over a million people in this metropolitan area and only one junior college to serve that base," says newly hired women's basketball coach Todd Holthaus. "There is absolutely no reason why we can't win. We should start winning immediately and be highly competitive for years to come."

Holthaus is a big presence in local basketball. At 6 foot 8, the former Grand Canyon University player first made his name by turning Flowing Wells High School's girls' team into one of the top big-school programs in the state. His teams' games with fellow local powerhouse Salpointe were legendary for their intensity.

He then made a big step up by being named to Coach Joan Bonvicini's staff at the University of Arizona. His two years on the UA staff were bittersweet, at best, starting off as they did with the death of potential All-American center Shawntinice Polk. The program, which had shared the Pac-10 title with Stanford just a year earlier, was staggered by Polk's death and has yet to return to the upper division of Pac-10 play since.

"I don't know," shrugs Holthaus, "maybe I'm just better as a head coach. I know I missed being in charge. A lot of people might question why I would leave the UA for this job, but I have no questions at all about it."

Holthaus takes over a program that has finished dead last in the ACCAC four of the past five years. Only occasionally competitive, the women's basketball team was at the other end of the spectrum from the softball team.

"It was horrible," said a former player, who asked not to be identified. "We knew going in that we weren't going to win a lot of games. It wasn't coach's (Greta Naranjo's) fault. We just didn't have enough good players. Nobody wants to play basketball for Pima."

This is the mindset that Holthaus will have to overcome.

"I understand that Southern Arizona is a hot spot for baseball and softball, but there are 30 or so high schools in this area. There have got to be a lot of kids who want to continue playing basketball after high school and get an education at the same time."

Pima administrators are quick to point out that education has always been, first and foremost, the ultimate task of the college. Sports have generally been an afterthought, one made even more so by the fact that it is a commuter college with no dorms and the aforementioned branches. There is no real collegiate feel to the place, certainly not when it comes to athletics.

Over the past three decades, Pima athletics has had its share of successes--several good baseball teams, a few decent men's basketball teams, track and cross-country teams that challenged for conference titles, and a men's soccer team that is often among the best in the country. It even won a national title in women's tennis--but that underscored Pima's quirky nature.

One year, a group of 30-something--and even 40-something--women got together at a local country club and decided that their skills were such that they deserved to be on a somewhat larger stage. One of them, a local high-powered attorney, suggested they play at Pima. They enrolled for the required number of courses at Pima, went out for the team and then steamrolled kids sometimes half their age on the way to the national title. It made for a good story, but it didn't establish the program as anything to which local kids would aspire.

To be sure, things have not gone all that well across the board since the in-county decision three years ago. The men's baseball and soccer teams have remained competitive, and the aforementioned softball team has flourished. But on other fronts, things are anywhere from bad to disastrous.

The football program, which had been started by former Sabino High coach Jeff Scurran, has been most indicative of that roller-coaster ride. Scurran immediately set the football team apart from the rest of Pima sports, going so far as to base the team at the east campus in far-southeast Tucson--and even giving the squad different team colors and a different mascot.

At the very least, this smacked of arrogance, a character trait for which Scurran is well known. However, his team performed well from the very beginning, providing confirmation for those who had been pleading for a Pima football team for years and years. In the second season, the squad reached a bowl game, and the future looked bright.

But then came the new administration, and Scurran left. Things fell apart in a hurry. The next year's team had to cancel its schedule midseason due to a lack of eligible players. Two coaches later, it's still struggling to regain its footing.

The track team, once one of the best in the Southwest, dissolved completely. Cross-country, golf and tennis struggled, but the worst news was on the basketball court: Both the men's and women's teams took one pounding after another. Brian Peabody, who had built the Salpointe boys' program into a state power, took over at Pima for one year. He somehow managed to win a handful of games with a bare-cupboard lineup, but he bristled at the in-county restriction and left for a college assistant's job in North Carolina.

The women's team was even worse, posting marks like last year's 5-22. It is this legacy into which Holthaus walks, eyes wide open.

Riza, Pima's athletic director, is thrilled with the hiring of Holthaus. "He's a great hire for us. I am excited for the future of the program. I sincerely believe that he'll do great things for us."

When asked about the in-county recruiting, Riza sighs. "I've been asked that question so many times. Let me make it clear: We want the emphasis to be on Pima County athletes, but that doesn't mean that he can't look elsewhere in the state. Obviously, with no dorms, it works better if we have local athletes, but it is not a restriction on athletes from outside of Pima County and never has been."

And then there is the softball program, consisting almost entirely of Pima County athletes, a shining beacon of light made all the more incongruous by the relative mediocrity all around it. Iveson is leaving behind a monster, one which has local fans and pundits shaking their heads in amazement.

Iveson was originally a star player at Catalina High School in the 1980s, where her team won a state championship. She was heavily recruited to attend Central Arizona, where the coach was a young former baseball player named Mike Candrea.

"He really recruited me hard," recalls Iveson, "but I was also being recruited by the UA, and when you have a chance to play for the local university, you have to go with it. As it turns out, I accepted the scholarship at the U, and the university hired Coach Candrea away from Central not long after that, so it worked out really well."

After graduating from the UA, she began coaching the junior varsity team at Salpointe while teaching third grade at Richardson Elementary in the Flowing Wells District. She soon moved up to the varsity coaching job and won the state championship in 1993.

Candrea came calling, and Iveson joined his staff in a restricted-earnings position. As part of that coaching staff, she would learn what it felt like to win a national championship. But she was champing at the bit and wanted to be a head coach somewhere. She considered jobs at newly opened Ironwood Ridge and Cienega High Schools, but then learned of the opening at Pima.

She took the job, and the results were astonishing. The team went 35-19 her first year and reached the playoffs. The next year, they were 60-10 and lost a heartbreaker in the regionals to perennial power Central, just missing an opportunity to go to the national tournament.

Then came 2004, where all they did was go 70-8 (!) and win the national championship. The next two years saw records of 60-11 and 60-10, with the latter resulting in Pima's second national championship in three years.

This year's team appeared poised to make yet another run at nationals, but got struck by the injury bug. All-ACCAC shortstop Kelly Nielson broke her arm in practice late in the season, and it left a hole in the Pima lineup that was tough to fill. A split with Eastern Arizona on the next-to-last weekend of the regular season left Pima in second place by one game and forced them to go to Thatcher for the regional tournament. A couple of tough losses eliminated the Aztecs, and Eastern advanced to this year's national tournament as the ACCAC representative.

It was actually an amazing season, seeing as how Iveson had announced that she was leaving before it even started. She had accepted a position at Yavapai, one that was offered by AD Bob Bockrath, who at one time was an assistant athletic director at the UA.

"It was just impossible to turn down," says Iveson. "He's just a wonderful person, and he made me feel wanted and welcome. Plus, at Yavapai, you have that collegiate feel that I've always enjoyed. You know how you can walk around McKale Center (on the UA campus), and you'll run into the basketball coaches and the track coaches and the swimming coaches? Plus, the athletes are always around McKale. (Athletic Director) Jim Livengood would have barbecues for all of the athletes at the beginning of the school year. That's how it is at most colleges.

"Unfortunately, at Pima, I would go months without seeing another coach. Everybody is part-time, and some don't even have offices." (Iveson didn't have an office until this past year, and then it was only because she had an added title of assistant AD.)

Iveson had offers from other colleges. Oklahoma State wanted her badly, but she didn't want to coach in the Big 12. Plus, there were other considerations: She has a 5-year-old son and a husband who wants to move from the classroom into administration.

"The time was just right for all of us," she says.

She will be starting the softball program from scratch at Yavapai and is looking forward to the challenges and rewards that will come with it.

"I don't want it to overtake my life. Coach Candrea has always talked about maintaining balance in your life, and I want that. I've almost lost that balance a couple times these past couple of years at Pima."

She leaves behind a program that is in good shape. Armando Quiroz, who coached at Flowing Wells for a time before taking a college job in New Mexico, is taking over for Iveson. He has a working relationship with many of the top prep coaches in town and should be able to keep things headed in the right direction.

Now we'll have to see if another former Flowing Wells coach can head in that direction as well. Only time will tell if Todd Holthaus can work a little Pima magic of his own.

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