DURHAM, N.H. -- Shouts pierce the air and shoulders start pumping as the rowers' oars smack the water. To the coxswains' count of four, a flotilla of boats cuts a swath along the Oyster River. As the sun peeks over the horizon on a cold spring morning, it's just another day of practice for the University of New Hampshire's women's crew team.
But back on land, after the athletes have hauled the boats ashore and pulled on their sneakers and sweats for the ride back to campus, their thoughts drift to the grim reality: This is a final journey for the UNH rowers.
Citing a growing financial problem, school officials in January jettisoned women's crew and three other varsity sports, men's and women's tennis and men's swimming. The men's ski program was trimmed from 22 skiers to 12.
The announcement of the cuts drew condemnation from the athletes and their parents, as well as coaches and alumni, and fueled a protest last month outside the State House in Concord.
Olympic swimmer Jenny Thompson, who grew up in Dover, also weighed in, blasting the moves in a statement and rejecting an award from the UNH Alumni Association. ''How can the university honor me for accomplishments in an endeavor which they clearly do not respect?" said Thompson, who attended Stanford University, in declining the Charles Holmes Pettee Medal last month.
The cuts, which are to take full effect after this semester, will save the school approximately $500,000 a year and help address a $1 million budget deficit, said athletic director Marty Scarano. The athletic department will try to close the remaining gap through increased fund-raising, he said.
In all, school officials say, the moves will affect about 80 athletes, four coaches, and two administrators. There will be no loss of funds for the eight students receiving athletic scholarships for teams that no longer exist, Scarano said.
''It's something I hate to do. But the fact is, we had to act. We're in a deficit," Scarano said. Painting a bleak picture of the future of low-profile sports at colleges that rely on public funding, he said, ''We've never had a rich history of benefactors at UNH, and if people don't support us, we're going to have to eliminate more programs in three years."
The overall trend is not so clear, according to NCAA figures, which show only a slight decline in the number of varsity teams sponsored by Division I schools, from an average of 19.2 in the 2001-02 academic year to 19 in 2004-05. Between 1988 and 2005, there was a net loss of 239 men's teams among Division I schools. During the same period, however, the number of Division I women's teams increased by 682, due largely to Title IX, the federal law requiring equal opportunities in sports for women.
A small group consisting of alumni and the parents of athletes is pledging to take the fight to the university's trustees, said Chuck Wilson, a Hampstead resident whose son, Jordan, is a sophomore on the swim team.
''The swim program was part of the reason my son decided to go to UNH," Wilson said. ''He's built up a lot of relationships with teammates and coaches, and to have all that ripped away after two years is very unfair. We're determined to fight this decision."
Women's crew coach Sue Taylor, a UNH alumna who is in her seventh season with the program, called the cuts ''a slap in the face.
''It's so disappointing," she said. ''I'd love for our athletes to get the respect they deserve, but really, the support given women's crew could have been a lot better over the years."
Taylor, whose contract expires in June, said the crew team's $70,000 in operating costs -- about 25 percent of which is covered through private funds raised by the rowers -- is a drop in the bucket for the state's largest university, whose operating budget for athletics stands at about $13 million.
Scarano said the school carefully contemplated which areas to cut. Starting last summer, a team of administrators began ranking each of the university's 24 varsity sports in 16 areas, weighing such factors as financial strength of the program, participation rates, academic performance of team members, and how much regional and national exposure the programs garner.
''We basically set up a matrix, a kind of formula, because I didn't want to be accused of choosing favorites," Scarano said. The lowest-ranked sports took the fall, he said.
Cuts are nothing new for the UNH athletic department. In 1991, Scarano said, the school fielded 30 varsity teams. By next fall, there will be 20, still comfortably above the NCAA minimum of 14.
In 1998, UNH eliminated its baseball program. Today, among flagship public universities in the six New England states, UNH is the only one without varsity baseball.
Loss of varsity status will not sideline all of the affected athletes. The eliminated programs can seek approval to become a school-sanctioned club sport. Club teams receive some university funding but function outside the athletic department, and largely fend for themselves while competing against club programs from other schools.
''We're going to try to survive as a club team, but the loss of varsity status really hurts," said sophomore rower Ashley Sylvester, 19, a native of Littleton, Colo. ''I've always been a varsity athlete. It's something that's important to me."
Sylvester said she is not sure whether she will continue rowing next fall.
Junior Colleen Perra, 20, of Ivoryton, Conn., who was a soccer player in high school, is among the many members of the UNH women's crew team who migrated to rowing after being closed out of higher-profile sports in which rosters are full of elite, scholarship-level athletes. ''Rowing is probably my only chance to be involved in sports at UNH," she said.
Taylor said a few of her rowers have expressed interest in transferring to another school, but most will remain if the team competes on the club circuit. Her coaching future is uncertain, she said.
The men's swimming team will not pursue club-sport status, said coach Josh Willman, who has led the program for 13 seasons. He also coaches the women's team, which remains a varsity program. Some of the freshmen and sophomores on the men's squad are looking to leave UNH, he said.
Freshman butterfly swimmer David Armstrong, 19, a Durham native, said UNH was one of the only schools that offered him an opportunity to compete at the varsity level.
''I was stunned," said Armstrong, adding that the team ''had no idea this was coming." He said he is hoping to transfer to the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, a fellow member of the Little East Conference, to continue his swimming career.
Denny Byrne, UNH's director of campus recreation, said the men's and women's tennis squads and the women's crew team are virtually certain to be approved as club sports. It is not clear, however, how much funding they would receive under their new status.
Kate Wheeler, a sophomore who grew up near Burlington, Vt., said it's difficult to imagine a sport as physically demanding as rowing losing its varsity status.
''It's a lot of work . . . we're up at 5 a.m. for two hours of practice in the morning, then two hours of lifting in the afternoon," the 19-year-old said.
''One of the things about being a club sport is we won't have access to the school trainers as much. That's going to be a problem, with all the injuries."
Byrne said UNH will try to minimize the impact of the changes. ''Club teams have trainers available to them," he said. ''Men's crew has done very well as a club team, and we don't think the women will see much of a drop-off."
During a series of meetings with athletes and their parents to try to explain the cuts, Scarano said, he felt the depth of their anger. Still, he said, on a campus with only one revenue-producing varsity sport -- men's hockey -- his hands are tied.
''We're empathetic," Scarano said, ''but somehow, to these young athletes, it never rings sincere. I understand it. They're passionate about their sports. But internally, as an institution, we're facing a financial challenge."
Citing a $1 million budget shortfall, UNH has dropped four varsity sports and trimmed a fifth, men's skiing.
* Officials say more than $200,000 in savings from staff reductions and shifting responsibility for certain facilities to other departments will push the total past their target of $500,000 in cuts, with the rest to be filled by fund-raising.
SOURCE: UNH Athletic Department
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