Thursday, February 1, 2007

Bobcat backlash: Abandoned athletes speak out

From the Athens News:

Bobcat backlash: Abandoned athletes speak out

While only four Ohio varsity sports teams were cut with last Thursday morning's announcement by the Ohio University athletics department, members of the track team contend that there may as well have been five.

Athletics director Kirby Hocutt officially announced the morning of Jan. 25 that women's lacrosse, men's indoor and outdoor track, and men's swimming and diving would be cut following the 2007 season.

However, with the elimination of the indoor and outdoor men's track teams, the immediate impact is that next year's cross-country team may lose runners who want to transfer to other schools where they can run cross-country, indoor track and outdoor track.

"We were really looking forward to having one of the best seasons in cross-country in the past decade," said junior runner Craig Leon, who also runs cross country. "We had set up this season. I red-shirted last year so that I could come back as a fifth-year and have a shot at winning the Mid-American title. It just feels like somebody dropped a bomb in the middle of us because we're blown to pieces right now. People are going to end up going their different directions."

In the long term, the cross-country program will likely struggle with recruiting since most runners would like to compete during all three seasons, rather than just the fall season, which is all OU can offer.

"It's unfortunate because if you don't have a track team, in reality you can't have a cross-country team," Leon added. "They might as well cut that, too, because you're funding a sport that's never going to be competitive. No real cross-country runner or distance athlete is going to want to come to a school that doesn't have track."

Posed with the hypothetical situation of cutting the cross-country team in order to fund one of the other teams that was cut, the track-team members were unanimous in their preference.

"If you could cut the cross team and keep the swimming team, I would feel that that would be a fair trade," Leon said. "The swimming team could be competitive, but the cross team without track and field could not be competitive."

Perhaps if the athletics department had spoken to the athletes earlier, their concerns would have been heard and the damage could have been minimal. As it is, the athletes remain skeptical that all options were explored before coming to the worst possible conclusion.

"There's no foreground whatsoever," Leon's teammate Eric Bildstein said. "It wasn't like we need you guys to cut the budget. You need to not get t-shirts this year or get shoes. We could live with that. There are 50 guys on the team. We can network with people to try to raise some money, do some fundraisers, do something. I would want to bet that we could cut some fat here and there and make it work if every sport cuts back. Why couldn't we do that?"

That question will likely never be answered directly because the administration conducted an in-depth investigation into what would be the best way to cut spending, and eliminating teams is what they came up with. It's uncertain whether they considered a solution similar to every team cutting back a little bit.

The Three Ts

Last fall, OU President Roderick McDavis gave a speech to all university varsity athletes. He gathered the athletes of all 20 varsity sports in the Convocation Center and made his motivational pitch. McDavis stressed three things in particular during this speech -- traditions, teams and titles. The three Ts: traditions, teams and titles. That is what Bobcat Athletics is all about. Don't forget the three Ts.

Don't worry, they didn't. The frustrated Ohio athletes recalled the message of McDavis' speech after the announcement last Thursday.

Members of the men's track team discussed their displeasure over the inconsistencies between McDavis' speech in the fall and the decision that was announced Thursday morning.

"Traditions, teams and titles. That's what they wanted us to focus on in the fall," Leon said. "I was like, that makes sense, finally we are getting down to focusing on what's important for OU athletics."

"It was a motivational speech," senior runner Austin Schiele recalled. "The three Ts. Traditions, teams and titles. And now it just seems like it was a load of..." He stopped short but you get the picture.

"And by cutting teams, you're not only cutting teams, you're cutting off a tradition here at Ohio University," senior runner Dan Bailey said. "Track is one of the oldest sports here."

Obviously, members of the track team are upset about the contradiction between being asked to continue traditions in the fall and then being told the traditions had ended in the spring. Such frustration is certainly understandable, especially considering that track contends with men's basketball for the grandest tradition of all, stretching back to the early 1900s. In addition, the history of the men's swimming and diving program goes back to 1935, a history that includes eight Mid American Conference team titles.

So much for the three Ts.

Bobcats React

Although the official announcement to eliminate four varsity sports was made Jan. 25, the coaches and players affected by the decision were actually informed Wednesday afternoon, the 24th.

"I had a meeting with the administration at 2:15 p.m. yesterday and I was told the news," Ohio Lacrosse Head Coach Allison Valentino said on Jan. 25. "The administration then met with my team at 6:30 p.m."

Valentino did not break the news to her players herself because the administration asked her not to. So how did the lacrosse team react to the news?

"We had a meeting for a while together in our locker room," goalie Jen Heup said. "Once I left, I actually tried calling (my parents), and I couldn't get a hold of them. But (when I talked to them), I just called them in tears and just broke it to them and told them there was no longer going to be a lacrosse program."

Heup took the news of the elimination hard but she wasn't the only one devastated by the situation.

"All my life they have put so much into me playing lacrosse," Heup said. "I know it's the same with all the girls. My parents put everything into me playing sports. And lacrosse was my life, so it definitely hit them as hard as it hit me."

The track team was also informed of the bad news by the administration, but they were more surprised than devastated when they met with the administration and discovered that their sport had been cut.

"At 3:30 p.m. when we normally practice, we do two laps around the Convo," Bailey said. "We asked coach if we should get started and he said no, we have a meeting. Let's have all the guys go downstairs. When they separate the team like that, it means one of two things -- either we're just in a lot of trouble for screwing up or you know it was something serious."

"Nobody, I don't think, really knew what was going on at first, but all it took was for them to put us in a room and Kirby said I don't know how to say this. And right then you don't have to say anything else," Bailey added.

Bailey, Leon and Bildstein all used the same word to sum up how they felt after the news was broken -- "shocked."

As surprised as the rest of the track team was, Schiele was even more surprised when he heard the news. Schiele had class and missed the scheduled practice so he was unable to attend the meeting.

"I was walking back and I saw a group of our guys running, and I just kind of gave them the 'hi,' and then they shouted my name as I passed," Schiele said. "I looked back and they were like never mind, we'll tell you later, that kind of thing. I was like, I wonder what that's all about. I get back to my apartment and my roommate's there who runs. He said, 'Judging by the look on your face, I guess you haven't heard the news.' I'm like 'what news?' and he said 'we had a meeting.' So that's how I found out."

Bright Future

All of the lacrosse and track-team members had similar responses in regard to what should be done in the future. With the elimination of their respective sports, the athletes made it a point that they will stick together and respect any decisions by their teammates to transfer to other schools where they can continue their collegiate athletic careers.

"I've never felt this close to a team as I have this year," goalie Heup said. "We've talked about it, and if anybody transfers or if anybody does anything, we'll stay together."

In addition, with the track team and lacrosse team as proverbial sitting ducks this spring, they insist that they will leave it all on the field.

"If anything, when we play this season, we are going to work harder," Heup said. "Just because we're going to work hard and play for each other."

Thinking back to last fall when McDavis made his motivational speech to the athletes, maybe he was a little bit misguided. Maybe instead of talking about the three Ts he should have talked about the two Ts, because for the athletes and coaches affected by this decision, this season has turned out to be nothing more than trials and tribulations.

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