Imperial Valley College takes creative approach to recruitment
By Heidi Gutierrez
Imperial Valley College is introducing new sports to its athletic department in ongoing efforts to engage current students and incentivize students from local high schools to attend IVC.
"Students are willing to continue their education if they can play the sport they played in high school here," said IVC Superintendent/President Lennor Johnson. "We have invited coaches from the local high schools to evaluate our athletic programs, and they have brought to our attention popular sports that we do not offer that are gaining traction in our local high schools."
One sport that is rooted in Imperial Valley tradition is wrestling. While not currently offered at IVC, it could well return to campus by next year.
"There is a big wrestling community here, with CIF success at the state level at the local high schools,” said Athletic Director Enrique Lechuga. "We used to have a wrestling program in the 1970s.”
Lechuga said he would like to see it reintroduced after conversations with members of the community.
Lechuga came to IVC from CETYS University System in Baja California. An athletic director at CETYS, Lechuga was recognized for contributing to a proposal that changed NCAA regulations to allow accredited schools in Mexico to become members of an NCAA conference.
With extensive knowledge and experience in sports and administration, he was named IVC’s first associate dean of athletics in January 2023. He has become an essential part of IVC's strategy of "reimagining the athletic program and enhancing its quality for incoming and current IVC students," Johnson said.
Lechuga’s work builds on a proud sports history at Imperial Valley College with an eye to the future.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, under legendary Coach Jeff Deyo, the college men's basketball team won multiple championship titles. About 16 Conference Championship, regional, and state win banners decorate DePaoli Sports Complex Gymnasium today.
And the IVC women’s basketball team under Coach Jill Tucker and Coach Deyo contributed to the college's streak of wins during the early 2000s period as well.
Currently, the women’s basketball program continues to dominate, and the men’s basketball team is working to bounce back this season.
IVC’s men’s and women’s tennis and soccer continue to be popular as are women’s softball, men’s baseball, and women’s volleyball.
Rather than looking to reintroduce or add just one sport, Lechuga has been looking at the big picture of what the college needs and how it can collaborate with the local high schools to up its game with new, trending sports.
"If we are looking into the next three years, a sport we have contemplated is women's flag football," said Lechuga. "It is one of the fastest-growing sports across the United States."
Lechuga added, "I would say traditional sports like volleyball, softball, and soccer will take a hit because of women's flag football popularity."
Several local high schools now have flag football teams, and based on successes and popularity of those programs, Lechuga expects IVC to add a flag football program within three years.
Pickleball is another sport the college hopes to offer soon. Although not a program at the local high schools, it has grown in popularity in various Imperial Valley communities. Lechuga wants to introduce it and other sports not rooted in Valley tradition that might interest incoming students.
"Look at pickleball, a trending sport in the States, has drawn a lot of attention in colleges," said Lechuga. Efforts are growing for pickleball to gain official sports status in intercollegiate competition.
The proposed new sports programs symbolize the transformation and progress IVC is making to meet the needs of local students now and in the future. In 2023 alone, IVC achieved several milestones, chief among them was winning the Aspen Prize, a national designation that named IVC the No. 1 community college in the United States. IVC shares the award with Amarillo College, which is in Amarillo, Texas.
Also, during 2023, renovations of the 200, 300, 800 buildings and tennis courts on the IVC campus were completed. Still under construction is a new sports field concession facility and restroom. All of these are bond issue-financed projects that focus on modernizing the campus with state-of-the-art equipment and creating an environment that is inviting to students.
The coming of new sports is all part of the college's strategy to remarket its extracurricular activities to boost student engagement, enrollment, and retention.
It was a conversation between IVC Superintendent/President Johnson and a high school student that helped fortify the need to renew the college’s athletic programs.
"A high school student from Holtville who I was encouraging to attend IVC over a period of three years had no motivation to enroll here after graduation.,” Johnson said. “If the college had wrestling, he probably would have come here and graduated,” said Johnson.
"High school graduates are willing to continue their education if they play a sport here," Johnson added. "Men are not enrolling as much as women at the college, therefore, we need to get creative."