Cetys University Making a Hopeful Bid to Become First Mexican Member of NCAA

The day began before 7 a.m. at the Baja Inn, where several members of the Cetys University women’s volleyball team had spent the night in preparation for a two-day trip to the United States. In sweatpants and warm-up gear, the players made a determined effort to get downstairs and out the door before other guests were even awake.

These players live in Mexicali, home to a Cetys campus, a little more than two hours east of Tijuana. The rest of the team, from the university’s Tijuana campus, soon joined them, and shortly after 7 their van rolled into the city’s warren of streets.

That day’s match, an exhibition against San Diego Christian College, was not scheduled to begin until 1 p.m., and the gym was less than 40 miles away. But crossing the United States-Mexico border can take hours, so the team played it safe, sacrificing sleep to make sure it arrived on time.

“We never know how long it’s going to be,” Margarita Cuellar, the team’s coach, said through an interpreter.

There are plenty of Mexican colleges that field volleyball teams, of course. But teams representing Cetys (pronounced SET-ease) frequently make international excursions like this as part of an ambitious bid to become the first Mexican member of the N.C.A.A.

Blas Ramirez, an assistant volleyball coach, collected players’ IDs before reaching the border crossing. (Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times)

For the athletes and their coaches, the move would offer a welcome chance to compete against tougher opponents.

“You really can’t compare the level of basketball, U.S. versus Mexico,” said David Ackerman, a Mexican student whose two younger brothers commute daily from Tijuana to a Catholic high school in San Diego, in part for the basketball opportunities.

Cetys administrators see their own opportunity. Sounding a bit like a major-conference athletic director, Fernando León García, president of Cetys, said, “We are conscious that sports along with research and visible alumni are a way to raise exposure.”

Cetys fields varsity-level teams in four sports for men and three for women but plans to expand to at least five for each. The university was founded, León García said, “to develop the well-rounded individual for regional development — more on the Mexican side, but it has evolved to address needs on both sides of the border.”

For many residents, Tijuana already functions as a suburb of San Diego. Many people commute from side to side daily, waking up early to beat the worst of the crowds. “The trips aren’t that far,” said Héctor Vildósola, the Cetys men’s basketball coach. “A lot closer than anywhere we play in Mexico.”

A breakfast stop for the team. (Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times)

But the border makes everything more complicated. On an ordinary weekday at rush hour, the line of vehicles at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry can extend for miles, as every passenger in every car waits to have his or her papers checked by United States Customs and Border Protection.

Many who cross regularly said there had been no noticeable difference since the ascendance of President Trump, who kicked off his campaign by saying that criminals were entering the United States from Mexico. But the new administration has nonetheless put those who move frequently between the countries on edge.

On the volleyball team’s recent trip, the van slowed down just before 7:30 a.m. and took its place in a mile-long line at the checkpoint. As it inched forward, the players blasted pop songs, and the smell of newly applied nail polish filled the van. It took 90 minutes to reach the front of the line.

“No hablen nada,” the Cetys players were told as they approached the checkpoint. Don’t say anything. And don’t make any jokes.

A border officer slid open the door and checked every traveler’s documentation, calling out their names one at a time. The players later commented on what they said was the agent’s friendliness and excellent Spanish — “good pronunciation” — and soon the van sped north.

An athletic field at the Cetys campus in Tijuana. The California Collegiate Athletic Association is supporting Cetys’s bid to join the N.C.A.A. (Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times)

Blessed with a couple of extra hours, the team, known as the Zorros, stopped at an IHOP for a leisurely breakfast.

Opening at the Border
Last week, the N.C.A.A. made permanent a pilot program allowing each division to invite Canadian or Mexican institutions. Simon Fraser University in British Columbia was the N.C.A.A.’s first international member, gaining entry to Division II and the Great Northwest Athletic Conference in 2012. But it remains unknown whether the N.C.A.A. will open its door on the Mexican border.

If Cetys were not the Centro de Enseñanza Técnica y Superior, based primarily in Tijuana and Mexicali, but rather, say, the Center for Technical and Higher Education, based in La Mesa, Calif., just 25 miles north, its case for N.C.A.A. membership would probably be a slam-dunk.

A private university focused on engineering with an undergraduate enrollment of a little more than 3,000, Cetys is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, just as Stanford and U.C.L.A. are. It doles out numerous athletic scholarships, both full and partial, and its annual athletic budget of $1.25 million puts it on pace, León García said, to match comparable Division II institutions in the coming years, especially as it adds teams to fit Division II requirements. The university, which currently competes in a Mexican athletic association known as Conadeip, is in the process of hiring its first full-time athletic director.

Cetys’s bid for N.C.A.A. membership got a boost when Leslie Wong, the president of San Francisco State University and a member of the Division II Presidents Council, became an enthusiastic backer. San Francisco State is a member of the Division II California Collegiate Athletic Association along with 11 other institutions in the California State University system and the University of California, San Diego. It is Cetys’s prospective league.

The Cetys baseball team during practice. One player said that competition against American teams “motivates us.” (Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times)

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