FRESNO, Calif. (KSEE/KGPE) – This March, there is a different vibe around the Fresno Pacific men’s basketball program.
“This year, we’ve done some things we’ve never done before,” said senior point guard Adrian Antunez. “So I think people are finally starting to realize, these guys, FPU, are nothing to play around with.”
Since the school officially became a Division II school in the summer of 2014, the Sunbirds have never finished better than two games below .500 in the PacWest Conference — that is, until this year.
“We got something special brewing here, and we’re pretty confident about saying that,” said Sunbirds head coach C.J. Haydock. “We’re pretty confident about putting our guys in front of our community and telling em, ‘they can be proud they wear Fresno on their jersey, no question.'”
Because this year, playing in the newly created Northern California Pod of the PacWest, FPU finished 8-0 in the Pod, playing all eight league games against Academy of the Art (5 games) and Dominican (3 games). The Pod system was created by the conference because of the pandemic.
With two non-league games left in the regular season – Friday and Saturday against Humboldt State – the Sunbirds are squarely in the mix to possibly make a little school history, and earn the school’s first bid to the Division II NCAA Tournament.
“This is a first for me since I’ve been here,” said junior forward Spencer Heimerdinger, a Buchanan High School alum. “It’s very exciting to have games that still mean something, and you’re not just playing to get better.”
The seeds of this success were planted by Haydock. Five years ago when he took the job, the former Immanuel High School coach took a more long-term approach to building the Sunbirds program, by mainly focusing on recruiting high school players, many of which would be from the Central Valley, like Antunez out of Clovis West.
“At first, it was really rocky and they were just trying to get everyone integrated with their vision and what they wanted,” said Antunez, about the state of the program when joined it.
And Haydock always had a feeling Antunez’s recruiting class would be a game-changer, since that class also included an overlooked 6-foot-6 wing out of Las Vegas named Amondae Coleman.
“We were their only Division II offers out of high school (Antunez and Coleman),” said Haydock. “We’ve done a really good job of identifying talent that is overlooked, and then hanging in there and hanging in there, and developing them.”
Four years later, Antunez and Coleman are fifth and third respectively on the school’s all-time scoring list, and laying a solid foundation for an emerging Division II west coast power —
especially since both these guys are leaning towards coming back to school and taking advantage of the extra year of eligiblity being offered because of COVID.
“If we come back next year, and we bring all our guys back, it’s gonna be something, something special,” said Antunez.
“I think all of us are seeing this as kind of our on-ramp to being relevant,” said Haydock. “I think our best days are in front of us, there’s no question about that.”
One team from the PacWest Conference will be chosen to get the automatic bid into the NCAA Division II Tournament, and since the Sunbirds were their Pod champions, and the only one of the ten conference teams to go undefeated in their pod, Haydock thinks the Sunbirds have a good argument to be that team.
If that bid goes to someone else, they also could be in line for a possible at-large bid, which heightens the importance of winning their final two regular-season games against Humboldt.
The Division II Tournament usually features 64 teams, with eight teams chosen from eight different regions of the country. This year, with seven D-II conferences not playing because of the pandemic, this year’s field was trimmed to 48 teams, with six teams chosen from each region.