By Sheila Mulrooney Eldred
FRESNO, Calif., January 23. FRESNO State officially cut its women's swimming and men's soccer teams for the 2004-05 season Tuesday, then left the programs in a state of uncertainty by offering the possibility of reinstating them in the future.
An attempt by boosters to raise money to keep the programs going fell short of the university's mandated $2.05 million target. But the programs raised enough money — about $1.6 million including pledges, cash and guaranteed commitments — to gain the attention of the community and university. With the university's approval, boosters say they will continue to raise money in hopes of winning the teams back in time for the 2005-06 season.
"There's a lot of disappointed people, but it's not over," said Randall Smith, president of the Valley Soccer Foundation, the fund-raising group for both teams.
"It's a far cry from termination," said Fresno State athletic director Scott Johnson.
"I think there's pluses and minuses. This gives them more time to fund-raise and get guarantors, and for the coaches to recruit. The minuses are that we have no presence next year."
Until Wednesday, athletes were optimistic they would continue competing for Fresno State. The swimming team was in the midst of a practice, and several members of the soccer team were training with members of the Fresno Pacific University and Fresno Fuego teams, when a news release was issued Wednesday afternoon announcing the programs' hiatus.
"I'm pretty shocked at what they did to us," junior swimmer Rebecca Cannady said. "It shocks me they would say no with all the money we had brought in."
Fresno State assistant athletic director Steve Weakland delivered the news to swimmers at the Clovis West pool, where the team was training. Many members of the soccer team, however, had not been told.
"Wow," said freshman forward Albert Naugle when a reporter told him the news. "There's my first reaction. We all really thought we were going to be able to play next year."
Apart from surprise, emotions ranged from relief to anger.
The relief stemmed from a desire to decide future athletic and academic careers, and, on the swimming side, an end to a perception that the team had not done its share of the fund raising. The anger seemed to stem from a disagreement between the boosters and the university over scholarship money.
"If they cut the program, they said they were going to continue paying for our scholarships," sophomore soccer player Paul Moran said. "The president of the Bulldog Foundation came and told us that they raised enough money for all the sports teams, including men's soccer. They said they have enough money to pay our scholarships, and the university chose to use the money set aside for us for other things. I'm on a pretty big scholarship, and they can take it away. I don't even care; I'd pay the tuition if we could still have a team."
The university said it will honor the scholarships of athletes in sports that were cut who remain at school.
Moran said he will transfer. Others said they were caught off-guard and will have to decide between finishing their education at Fresno State and finishing their athletic careers elsewhere. Several athletes seemed reluctant to wait another year to see whether the school would field a team.
Sophomore Heather Twedt predicted the cuts will end the careers of many swimmers.
"We had juniors and sophomores on the team, and unfortunately for most of us, our careers are over," she said. "Swimming is not a sport you can skip a year, so it's over for us unless we transfer now. I don't think anyone will transfer. It takes a lot to transfer at this point, and we're halfway through school."
Five members of the swimming and diving team, including the top four scorers at the 2003 Western Athletic Conference meet, transferred last year when they found out the swimming team was in jeopardy. One player and an assistant coach left the soccer program before the team played a disappointing 2003 season. Soccer coach Dave Chesler accepted a job in Boise, Idaho, after the season, where he is director of coaching for the Idaho Youth Soccer Association.
Last April, the university announced the elimination of men's soccer, men's cross country, men's indoor track and field and women's swimming and diving. In Johnson's attempt to balance the budget, the cuts were intended to save the department more than $557,000 for 2003-04, and a net savings of $1.6 million over the next three years.
But boosters quickly raised enough money to keep the soccer and swim teams alive for the current school year.
The university set a Jan. 15 deadline for the programs to raise enough money to continue operating for the next four years. Despite the extension of the deadline, the programs missed the target, a number that had twice been lowered from the initial goal of $2.7 million. A future deadline has not been set, but the boosters and the university plan to meet in coming weeks to discuss terms.
The challenges of bringing teams back after they have been terminated could be greater than reinstating the programs without a break. Interim swimming coach Tom Milich is not hopeful the swimming program will be revived in the future.
"I know a lot of the support we had was to reinstate it and keep it," he said. "I don't know if it'll still be there to start a new program down the road."
New coaches also would face the task of recruiting new teams from scratch. Also, the programs would have to continually raise funds to keep the teams alive. The initial amount, which likely will remain slightly above $2 million, would cover the programs for four years, said Paul Oliaro, a university vice president and head of the school's Athletic Corporation.
After that, fund-raisers would be responsible for raising a designated amount every year to keep the programs going.
"We'll have to sit down with the athletic department and the boosters and talk about the next steps to take to increase guarantees," Oliaro said. "We mutually have agreed the gap is too big to get it off to the start they deserve, but we're not ready to say they're just gone forever. The community responded with a considerable and noble effort to provide the basis to bring them back in another year or so."
Money raised to date will remain in an account maintained by the Valley Soccer Foundation, said swimming fund-raiser Diane Anderson. "I hope we see a swim team at Fresno State in the future," she said.
Smith said the Valley Soccer Foundation likely will take a couple of weeks off before gearing up again.
Reprinted from The Fresno Bee. Bee staff writer Ken Robison contributed to this report.