Former Highlander headed for Rio ’16

When former UC Riverside All-American runner Brenda Martinez graduated, she, like many students, was extremely unsure of her future. With no agents or sponsorships knocking at her door, the middle-distance runner had to rely on hard work and determination to continue a professional career. Fast forward to today and Martinez has become one of the best 800-meters runners in the world.

In April she ran a personal best and meet record of 4:04.86 in the 1,500 at the Mt. San Antonio College relays, which stood as the fastest time in the world at that point. Over the summer, she became the first U.S. woman to medal in the 800 at the World Championships, where she took home the bronze medal with a personal best of 1:57.91.

It’s hard to believe all these accomplishments have come from someone that walked past UCR’s Bell Tower and took multiple classes at UNLH. One person not surprised about Martinez’s overwhelming success is Irv Ray, director of track and field and cross country, who coached the 26-year-old before she graduated in 2010. “Coaching and developing Brenda from a high school 2:15 800 runner into the Big West Track Athlete of the year in 2009, as well [as] setting many UCR and Big West all-time marks, was very rewarding,” Ray said. “I believe Brenda’s accomplishments this summer at the World Championships with a bronze medal in the 800 is one of the single largest accomplishments by a UCR athlete.”

If Martinez keeps pace with her current form, the UCR faithful could see her competing against the best athletes in the world at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. “Brenda is one of only two American women who is in the USA all-time top 10 list at both 800 and 1500,” Ray stated. “[She] will make the 2016 USA Olympic team at both 800 and 1500, and has the potential to break American records at 800, 1500, and 5,000 before her career is done. UCR should be very proud.”

Men’s basketball dominates up North, eh?

The UC Riverside men’s basketball team traveled north of the border to compete in a three-game exhibition tour of British Columbia that wrapped on Sept. 16. The Highlanders won all three games played and their trip to Vancouver proved to be a valuable learning experience for the team.

With former head coach Jim Wooldridge taking over as interim athletic director, longtime assistant Dennis Cutts took the reins of the basketball program. He pointed to this trip as a pivotal moment for his growing team. “When a program takes a foreign trip there are many benefits. From a coaching standpoint there is an additional 10 practices … We were able to set a foundation on how we want to play both offensively and defensively. With the transition of the coaching staff and new players this time will be valuable as we build our team in October,” he stated. “[The] biggest takeaway was game experience. We wanted to make sure the minutes were balanced and every player on our roster played quality minutes. Every player got to start and we feel every player got a chance to contribute.” The men’s basketball team welcomed five newcomers to the team, which included several freshman and junior transfers.

While the majority of the expedition was focused on the court, the student-athletes did enjoy some excursions, which included a trek to Vancouver’s tallest peak, Grouse Mountain. While atop of the mountain, the team competed in an axe-throwing competition as well as watching sassy lumberjack shows. “The time spent together on and off the court at such early stages of the season was invaluable. We spend a lot of time together through the year but this was special because of the time of year,” Cutts explained. “We were able to see personalities come out and bonds being built throughout the team and with the coaching staff. This should definitely give us a head start for the fall.”

A new man in charge

Over the summer Chancellor Jane Conoley announced that longtime men’s basketball coach Jim Wooldridge would be taking over for Brian Wickstrom as UCR’s interim athletic director. For the past six years, Wooldridge had been tasked with overseeing the progress of the UCR men’s basketball team and now will set his sights on making UCR one of the premier athletic universities in the Big West Conference.

Chancellor Conoley was disheartened by Wickstrom’s departure to Louisiana, and thought the former head coach was the best immediate fit for the position. “I was thrilled about the opportunity,” Wooldridge told the Highlander soon after hearing the news in July. “I’m humbled by it as well. It’s a big day for me. We know what direction we’re heading and we’ll hit the ground running.”

Wooldridge has a daunting task in front of him, as the university has struggled in recent years to produce consistent winning results; however, the department remains optimistic about its future with the Oklahoma City native at the helm.

Volleyball experiences the summer blues

Most sports programs, amateur or professional, go trough periods of rebuilding, enduring sharp and sometimes heartbreaking losses in order to learn. UCR’s volleyball team experienced those growing pains last season. Despite the instant impact of freshmen Ashley Cox and Tyler Dorsey, the team only managed a 8-24 (2-16 conference) record on the year as they struggled to overcome numerous injuries. After the departure of longtime coach Ron Larsen and senior Amanda Vialpando, the program set out to hire a proven winner to lead their young squad. They got Michelle Patton, the former coach of San Francisco State University, who led the Gators to their first NCAA playoff berth.

Over the summer, the Highlanders set out on improving their record and implementing Patton’s new coaching system. UCR got out to a slow start, failing to win a match at their first two tournaments. Individual players such as Cox and Dorsey had impressive games, but the core unit couldn’t manage to pull away with a win despite being close on several occasions. The Highlanders finally secured their first victory of the 2013 season with a 3-1 victory over Winthrop on Sept. 14, which concluded their third tournament of the season at the Bankers Classic. UCR saved multiple set points as the team hit a season-high .247 and served double-digit aces (11).

The team hopes to continue improving their 1-11 output under the leadership of Patton before Big West conference play begins against nationally-ranked Hawaii on Sept. 29.