Jennifer Gunnell doesn’t know how much longer she can tread water.
It’s 6 a.m. when the UC Santa Cruz women’s water polo team jumps in the pool to train, hoping that winning a championship could save their sport.
Players say they cannot bear to look at each other with the thought that this could be their last practice, as the loss of their program seems immenent.
“It’s more than nationals; it’s trying to save water polo,” said freshman Jennifer Gunnell, a defensive and offensive player who decided to attend UC Santa Cruz because of the water polo program. “They can’t cut champions.”
During the end-of-year athletics barbecue last year, water polo coaches Alan Cima and Danielle Mulford were told by administrative athletic officials, Linda Spradley and Ryan Andrews, that the UCSC athletic department was dropping the water polo program.
Cima said the reason he was given for the cuts was that the athletics department had to implement the budget cuts by cutting a team. In response, water polo parents presented a written proposal, which promised $320,000 to financially support the program over the next four years.
However, Spradley and Andrews rejected the proposal, dubbing the donation “soft money.” The concern was that after students leave and graduate, funds from parents would no longer be available.
Because so many freshmen committed to the university to play water polo, the administration reinstated the sport for one year. According to Spradley, this was to give athletes time to transfer if they wanted to continue playing intercollegiate water polo at a different school.
But Gunnell, who was aware of the cut and yearly reinstatement when she committed to UCSC, hoped the university would accept her sport’s contributions before the season was up, and revise their decision to cut the program.
“[The freshmen] knew that UCSC was the place we wanted to go and we would take the risk,” Gunnell said on her way to the Western Water Polo Association (WWAP) Division III national championship. “I was ready to fight for this team because I knew this was the fit for me and playing for anyone else wouldn’t be the same as playing for UCSC.”
Gunnell, whose lowest grade to date in college has been a B, could have attended any UC or upper-echelon college but was drawn to UCSC by the water polo program. She doesn’t regret her decision, though, due to the connections she made with the players and coaches on the team at UCSC.
If the sport is no longer offered at the intercollegiate level, UCSC will be the only UC that doesn’t offer intercollegiate water polo. Gunnell is staying optimistic, but fears for the future of water polo at UCSC.
“One [more] year isn’t enough,” she said. “If water polo gets officially cut, we’re out of here.”
Funding an Intercollegiate Team
It wasn’t until after the parent group offered to set up a long-term fund that decision-makers brought up other reasons for cutting the program, Cima said.
Aside from a lack of administrative staff and no institutional support, Spradley said the decision was based on the absence of an individual National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) DIII title and less expansion of the sport on the DIII level, as well as other reasons.
“We had to cut them, we had to,” Spradley said, raising her voice defensively.
Unlike most other schools, UCSC’s athletics and OPERS programs are combined. As the executive director of OPERS, Ryan Andrews has the ability to make decisions that affect the athletic department.
“The decision to cut a sport was purely financial and predicated on the fact that we were facing budget cuts,” Andrews said. “The other factors were only considered when trying to decide which sport to cut.”
After the news about the cuts broke, Mike Huff, father of second-year Connor Huff, and other water polo players’ parents organized to raise funds.
Huff, who has worked for UC Berkeley’s athletics department for 30 years as an operations and maintenance manager, knew that Princeton University’s DI water polo team once faced cuts and now operates as a fully self-funded team.
“If the university were to allow [water] polo to exist, the team would be able to fund the operational costs or a part-time person to help with infrastructure issues,” Huff said.
“Infrastructure” refers to the administrative staff members within the athletic department. As budget cuts continue to take effect, administrative staff positions are the first to go. Recently, the department has just dropped the position of Sports Information Director.
Huff also authored a written proposal that offered to establish a “Friends of UC Santa Cruz Water Polo” fund similar to one that UC Berkeley uses to support its aquatic program.
The proposal offers to pay $80,000 each year for the next four years totaling up to $320,000.
In a press conference held with student media last week, Chancellor George Blumenthal said looking for outside donors is a way to fight off budget cuts.
“Private money is key to the future of our campus … we’re in a financial crisis,” he said.
However, Spradley said she rejected the proposal because the money is not guaranteed to be there in four years, when the students whose parents started the fund will most likely graduate.
Spradley said that all other intercollegiate sports on campus are required to raise 50 to 60 percent of their budget. However, she did not distinguish the difference between the fundraised money coming from other NCAA sports, which is also not guaranteed to be there in the long term, and the “soft money” coming from water polo.
Andrews said that all NCAA sports have some institutional support.
“NCAA teams represent the university and therefore should receive funding (in part or full),” Andrews said in an e-mail addressed to senior water polo player Heather Stewart. “That has been the distinction at UCSC between a club sport and an NCAA sport. To have a team be 100 percent fundraised is setting a precedent I do not want to create.”
Unfortunately, playing for a club team isn’t an option for many intercollegiate water polo players after playing two years of NCAA water polo.
“All the girls who have played [intercollegiate water polo] for two years can’t even play club,” Gunnell said. “The boys’ team asked that water polo be an exception, but the committee [who regulates club sports] said no.”
Stewart was the first to question the cuts last August when she heard that both Spradley and Andrews did not accept financial support to keep the program.
In the e-mail, Andrews went on to explain that allowing an NCAA team to be 100 percent self-funded would “blur the lines between club sports” and intercollegiate sports. He also said that giving an NCAA team the chance to be fully self-funded would create expectations from club sports also seeking NCAA status.
The NCAA did not reply to confirm whether or not institutional funding is a requirement of their organization. On its Web site, there is no implicit mention of institutional funding as a requirement.
“Typically, what it means to be an NCAA sport is that the school wants you as a program,” Andrews said regarding institutional support as a definitive aspect of NCAA sports. “To me it’s a requirement. I’m not sure if it is [for] the NCAA. I don’t know what they require.”
More Money, More Problems
Coach Alan Cima said in the 10 years water polo has been at the university, the team has raised more than $400,000, mostly from parents and fundraisers.
“The year I got here water polo hardly got any money through the university, anyway,” Cima said. “Though it’s improved through the years. After the announcement of the dropping of the program last year we raised about $75,000. We [ended up] giving back about $20,000, because as one donor put it, ‘Who wants to donate to a funeral?’”
Even water polo Olympian Natalie Golda offered support in order to keep the program alive at the intercollegiate level.
Golda, a three-time NCAA national water polo champion and two-time Olympian, is a product of UC water polo. Golda sent a letter to the chancellor asking the university to reconsider the decision to cut water polo.
Andrews said in an e-mail, “Although I appreciate and applaud the community rallying behind water polo and agreeing to provide funds, this is only a short-term solution.”
Spradley said that some teams occasionally fall short in fundraising and that the athletics department is left with a deficit. As of last year, the department is $85,000 in debt.
“The teams that I have can’t even raise their own money,” Spradley said. “And if they don’t, it comes back on athletics.”
Most of the NCAA sports have accumulated a debt over the years. Coach Cima said if the deficit for polo is an issue, then they should keep the program and request that the sport clear the deficit.
“We were told that the accumulated loss did not matter,” Cima said. “If there is an issue, then they should just say that water polo has to clear that deficit to continue, like they did with Shakespeare Santa Cruz.”
Nationals and Recruiting
Two weeks ago, the women’s water polo team competed in the WWPA DIII Championships, where they placed third after being ranked seventh.
WWPA is a NCAA DI water polo conference featuring 14 men’s teams and 12 women’s teams. Each year the WWPA hosts a championship for men in November and women in April.
Heather Stewart earned an honorable mention this season. Her reasons for wanting first place went much further than glory.
“We thought if we got first, how could they cut us?” Stewart said.
Placing first in the conference, which is different than placing first in the division, would have advanced the team to the NCAA DI, DII, DIII national meet in Maryland.
Linda Spradley said the decision to cut water polo was partly because the sport does not have its own DIII national championship, which she thinks is necessary for recruiting purposes.
“It’s not Div. III, it’s Div. I, II, III all together,” Spradley said. “Do you really think that a DIII is going to qualify for DI, DII national championship?”
But Coach Cima said the combined championship has helped with recruiting, regardless of a title.
“Players know that if they play for UCSC they will have the opportunity to play against all of the best teams in the country, not just those in a certain division,” Cima said. “I can’t tell you how many letters I’ve received from student athletes saying, ‘I saw your game against USC.’”
A Growing Sport
Though invented outside of the U.S., water polo has been growing in popularity in the States — especially in California. Every water polo NCAA champion has been a Californian college, and no non-Californian college has ever made the finals.
According to Cima, there are 20,000 Californians who graduate high school wanting to play collegiate water polo.
One of the reasons Spradley gave for cutting the water polo program was that the sport is not growing at an intercollegiate DIII level. She said that last year there were only 15 DIII men’s teams and this year there are only 14 men’s teams. She also said that the amount of women’s DIII water polo teams has gone from 19 to 18.
But Cima feels this factor is irrelevant when used to decide which sport to cut.
“There are nine NCAA teams within 100 miles of Santa Cruz that want to schedule UCSC and play us,” he said. “I think that compares favorably with any other sport that UCSC sponsors.”
What the future holds is still uncertain and despite news of demise, the team will keep fighting to protect what means the most to them.
As Stewart prepares to graduate in the spring, she can’t help but get emotional.
“I look at my teammates and I don’t want the administration to deny them their right to play,” she said. “Water polo is one of the best things that happened to me at UCSC, hands down.”