It’s Heartbreaking: Chelsea Hennan on Sonoma State Dropping Women’s Water Polo

Sonoma State WWP pic 2020
Sonoma State Head Coach Chelsea Hennan with her players earlier this year. Photo Courtesy: Sonoma State Athletics

Earlier this week,  Sonoma State University, a Division II institution and a part of the 23-member California State University System, announced that it is dropping women’s water polo from its athletic program effective at the end of the academic year.

sonomoChelsea Hennan, the team’s head coach the past four seasons who had previously been a star player and assistant coach for the Seawolves, was both shocked and saddened by the elimination of a program that has existed for 17 seasons.

Saying that she was “completely blindsided,” Hennan explained that, “I knew the athletic department was struggling and was asked to prepare for budget cuts in the weeks leading up to the COVID-19 closures for the upcoming year.”

“The thought that the department would suddenly cut the program entirely to preserve funding for other sports was not within (the) realm of possibility,” she added.

In a statement which also included the discontinuation of men’s and women’s tennis, interim Athletics Director Stan Nosek indicated the change will align each of SSU’s remaining 11 sports with the California Collegiate Athletic Association, resulting in a reinvestment of almost $800,000 in the department budget.

Nosek also specified that student-athletes in these impacted programs who currently receive athletic aid and choose to remain at Sonoma State will continue to receive their financial support during the 2020-2021 academic year.  Should they elect to enter the Transfer Portal, they will be immediately eligible to compete for their new institution.

The Seawolves are members of the Western Water Polo Association (WWPA), which consists of team on both the West and East sides of the Mississippi.  At the time of the cancellation of spring sports by the NCAA on March 13, Sonoma State was 9-8 and riding a streak where they had won 7 of 8 and four in a row.

[Commentary: 2020 Spring Season Cancelled by NCAA is NOT the New Normal]

After 17 seasons and a 206-324 overall record, the program is cut and Hennan and the 18 student athletes on her roster are finished.  It’s a cruel final blow to a season already preempted by the COVID-19 pandemic and a foreshadowing to other programs, as athletic directors around the country grapple with the realities of declining revenue, growing red ink, and an uncertain future.

Hennan has spent virtually her entire collegiate career at Sonoma State. Her tenure in various roles traces back to the 2005 season when she collected 72 goals, was named an All American and helped the Seawolves to a 26-17 record, their best ever.


Hennan was 2017 WWPA Coach of the Year for a 2nd place finish. Photo Courtesy: WWPA

She told Swimming World: “The discontinuance of water polo at Sonoma State University is devastating to the student-athletes, the coaches, the sport and to all that paved the way for the program including past coaches, pioneers and alumni.

“I am especially heartbroken having been a part of the program from its second year of existence in the NCAA as a student-athlete, then as an assistant coach and now for the past four years the head coach.”

Addressing her team in a video conference call immediately after the announcement, Hennan was understandably emotional.

I don’t think I held it together very well,” she said. “I communicated to them that I love them and support them in any way I could. I was equally devastated and that I just want to honor their sacrifices and reassure them that they’ve been resilient throughout.” Hennan added that: “They’ve already been so strong; hopefully they can reach back and believe: ‘Hey, I’ll be okay.'”

Earlier this week, WWPA Commissioner Steve Doten told Swimming World that: “It’s a dramatic change, but COVID-19 killed women’s water polo at Sonoma State.” He highlighted the challenges faced by the program. “SSU has been having financial challenges the last few years,” he said. “They’ve reported declining enrollment and having a very tough time.”

According to the release, the University was challenged by financial pressures faced by the campus, the CSU system and the state.  With enrollment of just over 9,000, Sonoma is among the smallest CSU campuses.  Other CSU campuses that sponsor Women’s Water Polo boast larger enrollment. San Diego State, Long Beach State, and San Jose State each have over 30,000 undergraduates, and Fresno State, which this week announced that each of its 20 sports lost money in 2019-20, has over 25,000.

Doten, who a decade ago fought off a similar challenge at UC Davis, aptly compared the Sonoma State struggle to the cycle of the Coronavirus.

“COVID-19 may not affect me if I am healthy, but if I have underlying conditions, I’m in trouble,” he explained. “And… (as an athletic department) Sonoma State had some underlying financial conditions and other things they were worried about and so you put the COVID-19 on top of that and they got wiped out…Sad to say.”

Hennan is clear-minded about the situation, and the potential implication it has for other programs,

There’s a lot going on globally so trying to keep in mind there’s a lot of people who are worse off,” she said. “One of my main concerns is that it starts a trend. I would really hate for the sport that I love to continue to make cuts and affect the growth that we’ve been pioneering over the past few decades.” she explained.

Like many coaches, she is grateful and optimistic in the face of disappointment.

Water polo at Sonoma State gave me such a great opportunity, Hennan said. “It molded me to be a coach that loves to affect people’s lives in a positive manner and build those relationships. I mean without it I’m heartbroken…

“I still love the Seawolf program. I have the pipe dream that maybe it’ll come back after admissions stabilize and the economy improves—and there’s a boom in sports again down the road.”

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3 years ago

Terri Snyder Potts

3 years ago

Richa IJntema Cuevas I didn’t see this!!!! Thank you. It was truly her whole career we feel terrible for her … that’s my kid in the water ? ugh