Earl a great find for Coyote basketball team

Michael Earl was playing on the grandest collegiate stage of all -
UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. It was early in the first half and the
Division II Cal State San Bernardino Coyotes were battling the Bruins
in front of a national television audience. He leaped high to swat
away a shot from much heralded freshman Kevin Love.

There weren’t many highlights for the Coyotes. But the play marked
the arrival of a 6-foot-9 senior newcomer who should have Cal State
in the CCAA and West Region title hunt once again this season. The
Coyotes (5-0), ranked No. 9 in the NABC national poll, will host
Monterey Bay (1-4) at 7:30 tonight in a conference opener at
Coussoulis Arena.

That the Diamond Ranch High School product held his own against the
Bruins should be no surprise. He transferred from Division I Utah
State.

“He is one of those players that changes games, especially on the
defensive end,” Coyotes coach Jeff Oliver said. “When he’s not
blocking a shot, he’s changing it and that can have just as much
impact. He’s a perfect fit for what we do.”

Earl, 22, played two years at Fullerton Junior College, averaging
17.2 points and 7.9 rebounds in leading the Hornets to a state title
and perfect 37-0 record in 2005-2006.

He made an oral committment to Utah State after an early
recruiting visit there. Then-coach Dieter Horton said if Earl, one of
five players on that team that went to a Division I school, had
waited he would have had between 25 and 30 other offers to choose
from.

But Earl stuck with his word and headed to Logan, a city of 42,000
people located 90 miles north of Salt Lake City with an
African-American population of .064 percent. It didn’t take long for
the culture shock to set in.

“I had white people there asking me how I get my hair like this.
I don’t think it was racism. They just didn’t know because they
hadn’t been around black people before,” Earl said.

Earl said his easy-going demeanor helped him adjust to the
environment. Getting used to the level of play in the Western
Athletic Conference was tougher. Earl was brought in to play the
forward spot but moved to center midway through the season when a
7-foot prospect failed to progress as the coaching staff had hoped.

Earl didn’t hold up against larger, more physical foes in the
paint. He confronted coach Stew Morrill about it after giving the new
position a try but saw his playing time drop off considerably after
that.

“He can play at the Division I level. That just wasn’t the right
system for him,” Horton said. “They play grind-it-out, smashmouth
basketball. He’s athletic and lean and needs to play in an offense
with more of a flow.”

Earl finished off the school year but called his former coach and
asked him to spread the word he was looking to transfer. Earl’s
original plan was to go to Cal State Fullerton, along with former
junior college teammate Tim Denson who wanted out of Colorado State.

That plan hit a snag when many of their academic credits wouldn’t
transfer. Earl also didn’t want to sit out a year which is necessary
when going from one Division I school to another.

Oliver knew one of the assistants at Utah State which gave him an
upper hand in trying to land Earl. It also helped that Phil Jones, a
third member of that junior college powerhouse, had already signed
with the Coyotes in the spring.

Earl and Denson both followed.

“Christmas definitely came early,” Oliver chuckled.

Earl has been solid, averaging 9.6 points and 4.6 rebounds on a
balanced team that has just one player in double figures. He has a
conference-high 17 blocks, nine coming in one game against Seattle
Pacific. He earned CCAA Player of the Week honors for his showing in
that game and the one the previous night against Western Washington.

Oliver and Horton both call Earl a “late bloomer.” As a high
school freshman he tried out for the team at Ayala, but was cut. He
transferred to Diamond Ranch the following year and made that team,
marking the first time he had ever played organized basketball.

A growth spurt of seven inches between his freshman and sophomore
years helped. By the time he was a senior, many Division I schools.
were interested but most dropped off when he sustained an ankle
injury the last half of the season.

Tonight’s game will be the first at home for the Coyotes. Earl’s
parents and two younger brothers are his biggest supporters but they
have to juggle their schedules to accommodate another talented
athlete. Younger sister Nina, a 6-1 forward, is averaging 10.3 points
as a true freshman at UCLA.

“When I was at Fullerton our schedules conflicted a lot,” Earl
said. “They hated having to decide which game to go to.”

Earl hopes a strong showing this season will lead to future
basketball opportunities. But if he has other options if that doesn’t
happen. He will graduate with a degree in political science in the
spring and is debating going on to law school with a possible
emphasis in real estate law.

Working with his father who is in real estate has piqued his
interest in that field.

“I love basketball but you can’t play forever,” he said. “You
have to have something to fall back on.”

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