Southern Utah State College hegins a new era Friday night in the Centrum when the Thunderbirds play their first official game as an NCAA Division I member.

SUSC faces Northeast Louisiana at 7 both Friday and Saturday nights. On Monday instate foe Weber State will be in the Centrum for a 7 p.m. contest.

Second-year Thunderbird Coach Neil Roberts has admittedly taken on a tremendous task. SUSC will be on the road 44 days this season. Of the 28 scheduled games, only 10 are at home. Among the well-known teams programs the Thunderbirds will encounter are Northern Arizona, Cal-Santa Barbara, Wyoming, Texas, Oklahoma, Baylor, Idaho, Fresno State, St. Mary's, Arkansas and New Orleans.

SUSC plays eight straight road games from Dec. 3 through Dec. 22 before meeting Idaho in a Dec. 27 game in the Centrum.

"Depending on how this year goes, we'll feel 21 years old again, or we'll be 90," said Roberts. "But I've never looked forward to a year more."

Roberts has reason for optimism. SUSC returns starting guard Jerry Naulls, and lettermen Jerry Nakken (forward) and 6-9 Randy Simpkins (center) from last year's club. Kelvin Lee, a 5-8 transfer from College of Eastern Utah, averaged 21 points a game last year, while forward DeMar Beck, a transfer from Snow College, carries credentials of 24 points and 12 rebounds a game. However, Beck has been bothered by a stress fracture in his leg, and his status is still up in the air.

The Thunderbirds also have impressive bench strength. Among the possibilities are 6-6 guard DaVor Marcelic, a freshman from Yugoslavia; 6-9 Oklahoma State transfer Roger McDonald; Cerritos J.C. transfer Chris Naulls; and 6-5 freshman Kurt Bailey of Provo. McDonald, who played for Roberts at Dixie College, won't be eligible until Dec. 15.

"We decided when we got into Division I to just jump in," said Roberts. "There are a lot of haves and a lot of have-nots out there. Right now we're a have-not. Someday maybe that will change."

The Thunderbirds played an exhibition game against the Australian team the Illawarra Hawks Monday night, winning 79-70.

Jerry Naulls averaged 13.5 points a game last year, to earn the reputation as the top returnee. Transfers Beck and Lee should also be major contributors.