Going for Gold

Academy of Art’s new sports program is about spirit, marketing — and the chance to break even more rules.

On a brisk Thursday morning, 17 women and 18 men on the Academy of Art's soccer squads bobbed and weaved across Silver Terrace Playground. With every quick cut, rubber pellets sprang from the synthetic turf field, and the players' shouts were drowned out by machine-gun–like bursts from downshifting 18-wheelers on nearby Highway 280. Four coaches ran the players through scrimmages and drills; men's assistant coach Gabriel Davis walked over and began offering uninvited critical analysis of his players' strengths and weaknesses to SF Weekly. Once again, the practice was being held earlier than NCAA rules allowed.

Jamie Williams later had an explanation for the early start to Pac West commissioner Hogue. Williams claimed SF Weekly probably witnessed a couple of club teams working out, not squads that will soon be competing in NCAA matches. Never mind the fact that the players and coaches were all easily identifiable via the photographs posted on the academy's athletics Web page. Never mind David Benton, the recreation director at Silver Terrace, who says he's seen full teams of men and women with coaches every weekday since July 21 — men's coach Daniel Rosaia even handed him a business card. And certainly never mind the fact that Williams himself galloped across the public field to threaten an SF Weekly photographer on Aug. 8, and ended practice 20 minutes early rather than allow the photographer to keep shooting.

Since the academy aims to join the NCAA but is not yet an official member, it is not strictly mandated to follow all of the organization's myriad rules. Hogue, however, said that all schools participating in the Pac West must follow NCAA rules regardless of membership status, and added he and Williams had reached an understanding about this by the end of June. Hogue thought that was the end of the matter, but word of the academy's early practices had been trickling through the conference. Williams' fellow athletic directors, understandably, are not amused. "Certainly this is an area of concern for me," says Dexter Irvin, the athletic director of Dixie State College in St. George, Utah. "What's the intent of the rule? To make the playing field level for everybody."

Staff at the Academy of Art did not answer queries as to why the school opted to practice early. But if it is hoping to turn heads by winning immediately, a few extra workouts couldn't hurt; Williams has ambitiously scheduled a men's basketball game vs. Division I USF on Nov. 21. "If you play [badly], it's not likely you're going to get much prestige out of having a doormat team," sums up Jonathan Brown, the president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities.

As for whether the academy's athletes are ready to play at an NCAA Division II level, many of them already have. A glance up and down the rosters of the dozen teams — men's and women's basketball, soccer and cross-country, women's tennis, softball, and volleyball and men's baseball, track, and golf — reveals a handful of players who have transferred from other colleges, some from within the Pac West. While the academy barred SF Weekly from speaking with its athletes, several gave interviews to their hometown papers. Morgan LeFever, a standout women's soccer player from Genoa, Nevada, told the Record-Courier, "I saw that they offered interior design and architecture in one degree, so I knew it was perfect for me." Brentwood's Debra Lafond, mother of softball player Shelby Lafond, told SF Weekly she and her daughter were familiar with the Academy of Art because "I see their commercials on TV all the time. I always thought it'd be really cool to go there." While other Division II schools recruited her daughter, Shelby had eyes only for the art school, which offered her a 25 percent scholarship. "Everybody in the family is saying 'What?' and looking at me asking, 'I thought she was going to play ball.' And I say, 'She is,'" Debra explains.

Most intriguingly, track and cross-country coach Mike Spino recruited "six to eight" Kenyans to run for his squad (the ambiguity results from uncertainty over whether a couple could afford plane tickets). On a recent Friday evening, the Kenyans strode out of the Star Motel on Lombard Street — the academy's latest acquisition — and headed for a waiting black bus. SF Weekly had time to ask one question — "You guys want to be artists?" — which was answered "Yes" before a man claiming to be an assistant coach bounded off the bus. "What's going on here?" he bellowed. "Come on, guys, let's go to dinner," he said, crowding the men onto the bus. Future interviews, he added, would have to be arranged by calling him. He refused to give his phone number.

Many a San Francisco developer has learned that land-use attorney Sue Hestor's first name doubles as a verb. Her Market Street office resembles a packed filing room in the moments following a grenade attack, yet she seems to be able to locate any document she wishes inside of 30 seconds. So, yeah, she can find the minutes for the 2006 meeting in Supervisor Peskin's office with the academy's lawyers and "what's her name?" — that'd be Elisa Stephens.

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