by Tom Vasich, University Communications
Mike Lawrence '00 may have been an all-conference golfer during his undergraduate years at UC Irvine, but his greatest contribution to Anteater athletics endures to this day.
Ten years ago, Lawrence and four other student-athletes spearheaded a campaign to revive Anteater sports by convincing students to approve a ballot item raising fees $99 per year.
The spring 1999 passage of the Athletics and Student Activities Referendum brought back the baseball team; created teams in women's golf, women's water polo and indoor track; and breathed new life into existing Anteater programs.
The measure planted the seeds for the current UCI athletics resurgence, with championship-level teams supported by an enthusiastic student body and community.
"By passing the referendum, we hoped to kill the apathy people had toward sports on campus," says Lawrence, a Dallas financial adviser. "Now there's a buzz about the Anteaters that's loud enough to be heard around the country. It tells me we did a great job."
"Many people today don't realize what it was like 10 years ago," says track & field coach Vince O'Boyle, who's been at UCI for 27 years.
Back then, O'Boyle ran his program on a shoestring budget of a few thousand dollars and had no scholarships to offer. Anteater Ballpark was a weed-strewn field where the soccer teams played. And there was no baseball team.
With encouragement from then-athletics director Dan Guerrero, Lawrence, women's volleyball captain Sarah Libecap, women's track captain Kay Nekota, men's swim captain Chris Benitez and men's basketball captain Brian Scoggin — the "Fab Five" — led a grassroots campaign backing the student fee referendum.
"It was a tough sell," says Scoggin '99, who threw out the first pitch at the Anteater's May 15 baseball game to honor the 10th anniversary of the referendum. "We got athletes from every sport to come together and drum up interest."
The effort paid off: Voter turnout was the second-highest in campus history, and the fee increase was approved. Baseball was back — big time.
Just five years after taking the field again, the team was the darling of the 2007 College World Series, falling just two games short of the title as millions cheered "'Eater Nation."
This spring, No. 1-ranked baseball is charging toward another College World Series appearance, and two other programs created by the referendum thrive: No. 10-ranked women’s water polo won the inaugural Big West Conference tournament in April, while women's golf is competing in the NCAA championship May 19-22 after tying for fourth in the regionals.
Today the decade-old fee provides $2.3 million of the university's annual $12 million sports budget and can be felt by every team.
Men's volleyball won the national championship — the team's second title in three years. UCI's golfers, swimmers and track & field athletes rank among the best in the Big West Conference.
Cheering on the teams is a rabid army of students, alumni, faculty, staff and community members who proudly consider themselves citizens of 'Eater Nation.
"Our slogan during the referendum campaign was ‘Stop Having to Explain Where You Go to School,'" recalls Lawrence. "Well, we don't have to anymore."