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Program shutdown spurs life upheaval

The Baltimore Sun

The 26 members of Ohio University's women's lacrosse team didn't suspect a thing.

They had spent a busy four months practicing, scrimmaging and bonding. But with their season opener just three weeks away, an e-mail summoned them to a team meeting instead of practice.

Because of a $4 million budget deficit in the sports department, Ohio athletic director Kirby Hocutt had told them, their program was being canceled.

"It was just the most shocking news I could ever imagine," said Katie Hertsch, a freshman midfielder and one of 16 players from Maryland. "I felt I had been lied to. I had been promised four years."

After the meeting, Hertsch did the same thing as most of her teammates. She grabbed her cell phone and called home to Westminster.

"I couldn't even understand her, she was crying so hard," said Hertsch's mother, Joyce.

Almost immediately, Hertsch and most of her teammates shifted from planning for games to searching for a new place to play lacrosse and graduate.

Though it's not something high-profile basketball and football players have to fear, the demise of college athletic programs is hardly unique to Ohio University.

Since Title IX regulations went into effect in 1972, hundreds of wrestling programs and dozens of men's tennis and gymnastics programs have disappeared. Because Title IX requires schools to maintain a balance between men's and women's scholarships, male athletes have been the most affected.

Morgan State dropped its once-proud wrestling program in 1996. Towson dropped men's tennis, track and field and cross country programs in 2004. The University of Maryland hasn't cut sports but allots little scholarship money to men's sports such as track and field, swimming, wrestling and tennis.

The abrupt canceling of a program causes havoc in the lives of affected athletes. The timing was unusual - few programs come that close to the season only to be canceled.

"I sat in a room and watched 26 of my closest friends be devastated," junior captain Kari Fasick of Marriottsville said. "It's quite a thing."

'Committed athletes'

After a 4-12 record in 2006, the Ohio women's lacrosse team members wouldn't be considered stars in their sport. But they are, in many cases, no less committed to athletics. They've spent years practicing and subjecting their parents to travel-team schedules. They've met many of their closest friends through the sport.

Most chose Ohio because they liked the program. And even if they know they'll never make money in lacrosse, they plan to play as long as they can.

"Sports have always been such a big part of my life," Katie Hertsch said. "I knew I wanted to play in college. That's what brought me here. These girls are some of the most committed athletes I know."

Hertsch was a three-sport star who made All-Carroll County three times in lacrosse at Winters Mill. She had other options but liked the idea that she'd start right away at Ohio and play with six other girls from Carroll County. She accepted a scholarship that would cover two years of tuition, room and board.

Little did she know that the economic outlook for Ohio athletics had grown dire. The department had run deficits for years and school administrators had begun a program-by-program financial review. Hocutt declined an interview request but reporters asked him at a Jan. 25 news conference if athletes should have been consulted before programs were eliminated.

"Our accumulated operating deficit has built up over the past four years," he answered. "We are focused on providing our student-athletes with the academic and athletic opportunities that you came here to receive. The finances and ultimate administration of this program is delegated to the athletics administration. That's the appropriate place that it belongs. ...

"Simply put, our expenses exceed our financial resources. We have a significant financial challenge and pretending it doesn't exist will sink the entire program. We will have an accumulated operating deficit of over $4 million this fiscal year. Had we not made this decision and things were to proceed on this same course, we projected our deficit would expand to over $7 million by 2010."

Preseason work

Though the sports department was struggling financially, the Bobcats prepared for their 2007 season. They became acquainted on the field through practices and scrimmages. Off the field, they threw a Halloween party featuring face painting and handed out programs at football games. The team's eight freshmen gathered in New York for some fun over winter break.

Everything seemed to be going so well until they got that e-mail. They suspected something was wrong because coach Allison Valentino had never canceled practice, not even for the worst weather. Then they heard that the men's track, and men's swimming and diving programs had been eliminated earlier in the day.

"Ladies," Hocutt began at the meeting, "I have sad news."

Many of the players bawled. They knew their lives, from daily routines to future plans, had just been scrambled.

Fasick was angriest that the school had known its plans for weeks without revealing them.

"I understand that they have to make difficult decisions sometimes," she said. "But I know they did not handle it properly."

On a mural wall generally reserved for pro-Ohio boosterism, athletes scrawled messages such as "RIP Lacrosse" and "114 Athletes - Too Expensive." Many turned their clothes inside out so they wouldn't flash the name or emblem of a school that they said betrayed them. Hertsch's parents hope to return the sweat shirts she bought them for Christmas.

"Look what they did to these kids," Joyce Hertsch said. "I don't want to wear anything that says Ohio anymore."

Starting over

Players made plans to visit other schools on weekends that should have been devoted to games.

Even though Fasick has put in almost three years at Ohio, she can't fathom sacrificing two years of lacrosse to stay and graduate. She's considering Loyola, Duquesne and William and Mary as transfer destinations.

"It's nuts thinking about starting over, but I can't imagine staying and graduating without half of my best friends," she said.

Hertsch also knew quickly that she'd transfer. She could have kept her scholarship at Ohio and moved to the soccer team.

"But after how we had been treated, to stay here and represent the school wasn't an option," she said.

She checked out Towson and Hofstra, where she recently committed to transfer in the fall. The process hasn't been as easy for some of her teammates. Many coaches at other schools have finished recruiting for next season and don't have space for transfers.

Despite such obstacles, the vast majority of Ohio players plan to play at other schools even though they could stay and keep their scholarships. Under an NCAA exception for athletes from canceled programs, they will be able to play immediately next year and the players do not lose a year of eligibility.

They're attempting to stay sharp through informal practices and lifting sessions. But with so many players jetting off for visits to other campuses, it's hard to unite the whole squad. Even those recruiting trips can be painful.

"It's so hard to go to other schools and watch girls play," Hertsch said, "when you know it's something you should be doing yourself."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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