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For Chapman, It’s a Banner Day : College football: Finding able bodies no problem as sport returns to the campus after a 62-year hiatus.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Efriam Miranda felt left out last winter.

College football recruiters from USC, San Diego State and Pacific were signing his teammates on the Orange Coast College defense.

Miranda, despite being an honorable mention All-American defensive lineman, was fielding offers from a couple of Division I-AA schools, Tennessee Martin and Morehead State in Kentucky. “And I didn’t really feel like going back there,” he said.

But Miranda remembered that, closer to home, Chapman was starting a football program. So he and Aaron Gutridge, another OCC player, decided to visit the new coaching staff.

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“The first question was whether we had started at OCC,” Miranda said. “And I was really happy to hear that they didn’t have any expectations. At that time, they were just looking for bodies, and I was just trying to cover myself because I didn’t have a place to go to school.

“I’ll be the first to admit Chapman wasn’t my first choice, but it’s looking like a good situation now.”

He’ll know for certain soon. After 62 years without intercollegiate football, Chapman is taking to the football field again this week. Practice starts Thursday, and about 100 players are expected to turn out. It’s quite a change from the school’s last football team, which was composed of about 20 students at a time the institution was called California Christian College and the campus was in Los Angeles.

The Panther program didn’t win a football game in its final three seasons before being disbanded in 1932, a casualty of the Depression.

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Last December, Coach Ken Visser was hired away from Whittier College to start a different sort of tradition. His team has only three weeks to prepare for its opening game Sept. 17--at Whittier.

The trappings of football are steadily being prepared. The goal posts and electronic scoreboard are place. Bleachers that will increase seating capacity to about 2,800 are scheduled to be set up by Friday. Yard lines have been painted on the field, which was refurbished last year at a cost of $500,000.

It’s the culmination of a 2 1/2-year project, set into motion when university President Jim Doti announced that Chapman would resurrect football as part of a move to the non-scholarship NCAA Division III level.

Athletic Director Dave Currey, who before coming to Chapman was football coach at Long Beach State and Cincinnati, has since been building the program’s foundation. After Visser came on board, the project built momentum.

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Coming in, Visser believed there was a need for a four-year football program in Orange County--it hasn’t had one since Cal State Fullerton suspended the sport after the 1992 season--but even he was surprised by the number of athletes that called on him.

The Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, the league Chapman hopes to join, doesn’t allow coaches to recruit off campus. Even so, nearly 400 potential players visited.

Apparently, many liked what they saw.

“Usually, you lose a certain percentage who decide to go somewhere else,” Visser said. “Here, we didn’t lose hardly anyone. Everybody who got admitted seemed to want to come.”

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Visser isn’t certain exactly how many will show up for the first day of practice.

“We’re at the breaking point right now,” he said. “If all of a sudden 20 more people enroll, I might have a logistics nightmare, and I will have to make some decisions.”

Cuts might be necessary. But Visser isn’t complaining.

“If I’m four deep at a particular position, I think the thing that has me smiling is that I’m not sure who is my best guy there. I’m happy with the quality of players coming in overall. It’s going to be very competitive, I know that.”

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The starting lineup will likely be heavy with community college transfers--starting from scratch makes having experienced players crucial--but Visser said about half the players are freshmen.

They have come to Chapman for various reasons, such as the chance for a quality education without the hassles of a large student body. Most are receiving financial aid to help pay the school’s $20,000 yearly tab.

Some, such as Miranda, Gutridge and another OCC teammate, Shad Vickers, didn’t like their other options.

Others, such as Mister Albritton of Rancho Santiago College, wanted to stay close to home. And others say they are excited about starting a tradition.

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Neil Griffin, an All-Foothill Conference linebacker from Citrus College in Glendora, wants to prove that Division I schools made a mistake by passing him up. Utah State had offered him a scholarship but pulled it back because he couldn’t finish his associate degree in time to make spring practice. Chapman became his backup.

“I plan on starting,” Griffin said. “If I don’t, this is a strong program, and it should probably move up to Division I.”

Todd Gragnano has seen Division I; he just wants another crack at playing college football. A standout quarterback at Los Alamitos in the late 1980s, he earned a scholarship to Nebraska. But after it became clear he wasn’t the option-type quarterback the Cornhuskers coveted, Gragnano transferred to Louisville in 1992. That didn’t work out, either, so Gragnano gave up football--for good, he thought--and moved home.

Then, at last season’s Fountain Valley-Los Alamitos game, Gragnano heard that Chapman was starting a program, and after brushing off the idea of a comeback, he reconsidered.

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“It was something I had to do,” Gragnano said. “I hadn’t played in a game for a while, and I missed it. So I wanted to give it one last shot.”

Visser is facing a difficult task to pull together a team coming from so many different directions, but he isn’t fazed. He said the situation at Whittier when he took over in 1991 was worse.

“They were 0-9 the year before, and we were down to 18 returning players,” said Visser, who was 11-16 in three seasons and 4-5 in 1993. “You had to overcome the negativity of that. Here we have advantage of being an entirely new program.

“It will be a tough challenge without knowing each other, but we’ve just got to do it. We might not have our entire defense put in or our entire offense put in by the first game, but we’ll have enough that we can compete well.”

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