TIJUANA, Mexico — The day began before 7 a.m. at the Baja Inn, where several members of the Cetys University women’s volleyball team had spent the night in preparation for a two-day trip to the United States. In sweatpants and warm-up gear, the players made a determined effort to get downstairs and out the door before other guests were even awake.

These players live in Mexicali, home to a Cetys campus, a little more than two hours east of Tijuana. The rest of the team, from the university’s Tijuana campus, soon joined them, and shortly after 7 their van rolled into the city’s warren of streets.

That day’s match, an exhibition against San Diego Christian College, was not scheduled to begin until 1 p.m., and the gym was less than 40 miles away. But crossing the United States-Mexico border can take hours, so the team played it safe, sacrificing sleep to make sure it arrived on time.

“We never know how long it’s going to be,” Margarita Cuellar, the team’s coach, said through an interpreter.

There are plenty of Mexican colleges that field volleyball teams, of course. But teams representing Cetys (pronounced SET-ease) frequently make international excursions like this as part of an ambitious bid to become the first Mexican member of the N.C.A.A.
Blas Ramirez, an assistant volleyball coach, collected players’ IDs before reaching the border crossing. Credit Sandy Huffaker for The New York TimesPhoto by: Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times

For the athletes and their coaches, the move would offer a welcome chance to compete against tougher opponents.

“You really can’t compare the level of basketball, U.S. versus Mexico,” said David Ackerman, a Mexican student whose two younger brothers commute daily from Tijuana to a Catholic high school in San Diego, in part for the basketball opportunities.

A breakfast stop for the team. Credit Sandy Huffaker for The New York TimesPhoto by: Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times

But the border makes everything more complicated. On an ordinary weekday at rush hour, the line of vehicles at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry can extend for miles, as every passenger in every car waits to have his or her papers checked by United States Customs and Border Protection.

On the volleyball team’s recent trip, the van slowed down just before 7:30 a.m. and took its place in a mile-long line at the checkpoint. As it inched forward, the players blasted pop songs, and the smell of newly applied nail polish filled the van. It took 90 minutes to reach the front of the line.

“No hablen nada,” the Cetys players were told as they approached the checkpoint. Don’t say anything. And don’t make any jokes.

A border officer slid open the door and checked every traveler’s documentation, calling out their names one at a time. The players later commented on what they said was the agent’s friendliness and excellent Spanish — “good pronunciation” — and soon the van sped north.

An athletic field at the Cetys campus in Tijuana. The California Collegiate Athletic Association is supporting Cetys’s bid to join the N.C.A.A. Credit Sandy Huffaker for The New York TimesPhoto by: Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times

Blessed with a couple of extra hours, the team, known as the Zorros, stopped at an IHOP for a leisurely breakfast.

Opening at the Border

Last week, the N.C.A.A. made permanent a pilot program allowing each division to invite Canadian or Mexican institutions. Simon Fraser University in British Columbia was the N.C.A.A.’s first international member, gaining entry to Division II and the Great Northwest Athletic Conference in 2012. But it remains unknown whether the N.C.A.A. will open its door on the Mexican border.

If Cetys were not the Centro de Enseñanza Técnica y Superior, based primarily in Tijuana and Mexicali, but rather, say, the Center for Technical and Higher Education, based in La Mesa, Calif., just 25 miles north, its case for N.C.A.A. membership would probably be a slam-dunk.

Cetys’s bid for N.C.A.A. membership got a boost when Leslie Wong, the president of San Francisco State University and a member of the Division II Presidents Council, became an enthusiastic backer. San Francisco State is a member of the Division II California Collegiate Athletic Association along with 11 other institutions in the California State University system and the University of California, San Diego. It is Cetys’s prospective league.

The Cetys baseball team during practice. One player said that competition against American teams “motivates us.” Credit Sandy Huffaker for The New York TimesPhoto by: Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times

Cetys has hired Nancy Mitchell, a former N.C.A.A. staff member who consults with institutions looking to join the organization or move among its divisions. At the last N.C.A.A. convention, in January, León García made a private presentation to several leagues (N.C.A.A. rules will require more than one conference to sponsor Cetys’s bid) and visited a C.C.A.A. meeting. This past weekend, Cetys sent athletes to a meeting of the conference’s student-athlete advisory committee.

Terri Steeb Gronau, the N.C.A.A. vice president for Division II, drew contrasts between Cetys now and the failed effort four years ago.

Cetys fields several varsity teams for men and women, and plans to expand its programs. Credit Sandy Huffaker for The New York TimesPhoto by: Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times

But significant hurdles to full N.C.A.A. membership remain. Should Cetys gain entry, not only its athletes but also all C.C.A.A. athletes who wished to travel to Cetys for road games would need passports or visas. The impact on foreign nationals holding student visas, which can restrict them from traveling outside the United States, would need to be addressed by the conference.

The conference supports Cetys’s efforts, Salant said, and with last week’s N.C.A.A. ruling, a division-wide vote could come as soon as January. If admitted, Cetys could begin the standard three-year provisional membership in fall 2018.

However, acknowledging the obstacles that remain, Salant added, “It’s too early for me to say, ‘We’ll take them.’”

So Close, So Far

A visit to Cetys’s Tijuana campus indicates just how close, in every sense, the university is to another American institution. By car, and accounting for traffic in Tijuana, the trip to Cetys from downtown San Diego takes less than an hour. (Travelers entering Mexico from the United States frequently receive no inspection.)

Cetys playing against San Diego Christian. Competition in the United States presents a number of challenges, but the Zorros were victors this day. Credit Sandy Huffaker for The New York TimesPhoto by: Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times

On the streets of Tijuana, iterations of American chains — Sears, Walmart, Buffalo Wild Wings — mingle with local businesses, and on a main avenue, the Paseo de los Héroes, Abraham Lincoln is honored with a large statue. Mountains in California are visible from Cetys’s hilltop complex.

“We are very thankful to be able to go play and have some games,” said center fielder Marcos Almonte, “because that motivates us.”

Women’s volleyball players said they also felt challenged, in a variety of ways, when playing north of the border.

Hours after their early morning departure, after the border crossing and breakfast, the day’s volleyball game turned out to be little more than an exhibition match. San Diego Christian competes in the N.A.I.A., a tier below the N.C.A.A. and its three divisions. For its players, the match was a gussied-up practice; the team did not even wear its full uniforms.

San Diego Christian may have had the edge in size. But over the course of four games, Cetys displayed superior resourcefulness and skill, with crafty sets and feinted spikes. Cetys won all four games, mounting a substantial comeback to take the final one, 25-23.

“The kind of game they play is really fast,” Maritza Alvarado, a senior, had said of American opponents. She then turned her attention to the three best-of-five competitions against Division II teams that the team would play the next day. These are the kinds of teams Cetys can expect to face if its N.C.A.A. membership comes through.

© 2017 The New York Times Company.