Can sports put a tiny new university in San Marcos on the college map?

    Prospective students can find UC Santa Cruz difficult to ignore. It’s nestled among sweet-scented fir trees overlooking the Pacific and has academic programs known around the world.

    But Antonio Chavez’s gaze didn’t linger there when he was shopping for a college. He picked the University of Saint Katherine in San Marcos, a tiny new school that doesn’t have a traditional campus, a library, an endowment, plentiful housing or name recognition.

    Chavez liked the fact that USK, as its called, is a short drive from his home in Oceanside and that it features small classes with lots of access to teachers. It also offered him something that Santa Cruz might not have provided — a chance to play on the soccer team.

    “That was a big goal of mine,” said Chavez, a senior. “I love the game.”

    He found a spot on the team through an unusual business strategy that’s being employed by USK, whose classes are mostly confined to a single floor of an office building on state Route 78, across from Cal State San Marcos.

    The school, which markets itself as the only orthodox Christian university in the country, heavily recruits student athletes as a way of helping to build enrollment.

    About 85 percent of its 275 students play on Saint Katherine’s 10 men and women’s teams. By comparison, the figure at most traditional colleges and universities is below 20 percent and, at many, below 5 percent.

    “Our athletics department is phenomenal at recruitment,” said Dr. Frank J. Papatheofanis, who founded the school in 2010 and serves as its president. “We didn’t intend for that to happen … They’re great recruiters. And so we just went along with it.

    “We get students who couldn’t afford this caliber of education basically because of athletics, (and)athletic scholarships.”

    The dominance of sports is reflected in USK’s employment roster. The school has 10 full-time coaches and seven full-time academic teachers. Roughly $1.2 million of the school’s $5.5 million budget goes to athletics.

    USK founder-president Frank Papatheofanis has invested about  million of his own money to support the school.

    USK founder-president Dr. Frank Papatheofanis has invested $10 million of his own money to support the school.

    (K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

    It might be a short-term thing.

    Papatheofanis, a former faculty member at the UC San Diego School of Medicine, said he would like to reduce the number of student athletes to the 25-percent to 30-percent range over time.

    For the moment, though, the private, nonprofit and accredited school intends to use sports to raise its public profile and help boost enrollment to about 500, roughly over the next decade.

    It will do so far, far away from the glare of big time college sports.

    Saint Katherine is a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, or NAIA, which is largely composed of small schools, many which have religious affiliations. The NAIA is usually overshadowed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, which has an abundance of famous mid-to-large sized schools, such as UCLA, Ohio State and Notre Dame.

    Saint Katherine belongs to NAIA’s California Pacific Conference, which includes other little-known schools, including the University of Antelope Valley and Arizona Christian University.

    For a young school, USK is holding its own. The men’s baseball team won the conference championship last year, and the women did the same in beach volleyball and softball.

    “This (level of competition) is just fun,” said Eryn Leja, coach of the women’s volleyball team and assistant athletic director.

    “You have a better opportunity to play at the national tournament because there are less teams than (in) the NCAA,” she added. “I like knowing that we have a chance to play on a national level.”

    Papatheofanis, who is 63, began thinking about creating a school like USK during his high school years, when he was living in Chicago and wondering where to go to college.

    Students walk through the halls during a passing period at The University of Saint Katherine

    Students walk through the halls during a passing period at The University of Saint Katherine on Nov. 14, 2022.

    (K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

    “All of my friends had denominational schools (to choose from),” he said. “My Catholic friends had Notre Dame, my Protestant friends had Wheaton College, my Jewish friends had Brandeis. “I didn’t have anything …

    “I was surprised to discover so early in my life that although my ancestors came and built churches they didn’t build schools, they didn’t invest in educational systems or networks.”

    He was expressing his desire to attend a college that was based on orthodox Christianity which, along with Catholicism and Protestantism make up the three main branches of Christianity.

    Today, there is an estimated 260 million to 300 million orthodox Christians worldwide, the majority of whom live in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe. About 7 million orthodox Christians live in the U.S.

    The number living in California isn’t clearly known. Papatheofanis believes the figure is large enough to support a university, so he started one. The school offers degrees in four main areas, the largest being kinesiology, followed by business, the arts and humanities, and the natural sciences.

    USK charges about $27,000 in annual tuition, which is on the low side for a small, private school.

    The university’s smallness holds big appeal for some students.

    “I always pictured myself going to some big college with a huge campus,” said McKenna Clugston of Murrieta, the president of the student senate. “Then I came here on a visit and loved the family atmosphere.”

    University of Saint Katherine basketball player Cesar Meza, right, works out as trainer Gordon Pang looks on

    University of Saint Katherine basketball player Cesar Meza, right, works out as trainer Gordon Pang looks on in the school’s gym.

    (K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

    The ambience also captivates Alden Reynoso, a human resources expert who teaches career development part-time at USK.

    “I’m in a business where you don’t always get to bring your faith to work,” Reynoso said of working in HR. “But here I get to. That’s important to me.”

    Recruiting student athletes to such a school can be a challenge, said Kai Harris, coach of the women’s basketball team.

    “The big push is trying to build an atmosphere where people would rather be here than anywhere else,” Harris said. “Sometimes, we lose out to the big shiny lights and the nice locker rooms (of other schools). But we really try to find those players where culture is something really important to them.”

    For Harris, the effort comes with a small but important near-term goal.

    “We have a Handels Ice Cream place right down the street,” he said. “It has all of the local schools painted on the wall. You’ve got San Marcos High School, Mission Hill High School, Cal State San Marcos, Palomar College.

    “But there’s no USK. My secret mission is (for us) to be relevant enough, loud enough, make enough waves, to where we get painted on the Handel’s wall.

    “It’s symbolic.”

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