- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 24, 2005

The American University men’s tennis team was enjoying a splendid spring afternoon. The three-time defending Patriot League champion — well on its way to a fourth conference title — was showing off its talents before about 100 sun-soaked supporters packed onto a tiny bleacher.

The team delighted the spectators with an easy non-conference win over Howard in its regular-season finale on April13. Players thrived in a spirited atmosphere that smaller programs like AU’s rarely enjoy.

It is a scene that probably won’t be around much longer at the Northwest campus. The Eagles’ men’s tennis program finds itself on death row, despite its continued success. Yesterday, AU (17-4 overall, including a 6-0 Patriot League regular season) beat Colgate in the Patriot League semifinals in Montclair, Va., to advance to today’s final.

The only AU team to reach the NCAA tournament each of the last three seasons is being eliminated. The athletic department was given a mandate to adhere to its $8million budget and chose to purge men’s and women’s tennis and men’s golf.

“It was 13 grown men crying,” sophomore Jeffrey Schnell said of the Feb.24 announcement made to players and coaches who didn’t even know the program was in jeopardy. “It was 13 guys’ dreams gone.”

The sports initially were to be eliminated after this season, but in part because of an outcry of support are now set to be cut after the 2006 season.

All players said they want to finish their careers at AU but know that is extremely unlikely.

“It was a stab to the heart,” said Daniel Frid, a freshman from Dallas. “I don’t want to leave these guys, but I do have to think about my future. People in my year have to do that. I came here to play because I always heard how amazing it was to play at AU. And they took it away.”

Athletic director Joni Comstock, in her second year at AU and the school’s fourth AD in six years, said the move was made to keep the other 16 sports (seven for men, nine for women) at current strength rather than cut across the board and hurt everyone.

The sports being trimmed cost about $520,000 a year. Men’s tennis, which has only two scholarships, costs $180,000 annually.

The school will honor its scholarships if players choose to stay after the programs are disbanded.

The department was told it could not exceed its budget as in recent years. The cuts are partly a result of the lack of income generated from men’s basketball, the school’s only revenue sport and one that is expected to bring in money to help non-revenue sports like tennis.

However, sparse attendance (1,358 per game) at basketball games and a lack of income from postseason games have hurt the department.

The basketball team’s budget is in excess of $1million with 13 scholarships.

Fifth-year coach Jeff Jones hasn’t been able to generate much interest in the team, which has not made an NCAA appearance during his tenure but has been to three conference tournament finals. Jones earns $225,000 a year, according to sources close to the program.

Jones’ contract, which runs through 2008-09, is particularly rich for a low mid-major program.

“I support all AU teams, but I want them to win so we can get money,” said Juan Jaysingh, the tennis team’s lone senior and No.1 player. “I know tennis is not a revenue sport. I am in the business school. I want them to win.”

Jaysingh has helped spearhead a fundraising campaign designed to save the program beyond next season.

First-year coach Kyle Bailey wasn’t sure how his squad would react to the bombshell announcement but knew his players had plenty of character. The Eagles went back to work the next day at 7a.m. in what was described as a quiet, intense practice.

“It was almost like the stages of grief,” said Bailey, who played at AU before becoming an assistant coach last season. “First there was the shock, then the anger you have about the whole thing and you are struggling to find ways to do next.”

Said Jaysingh of Rockville: “When that happened, we decided to prove to people we deserve to be here.”

The Eagles responded with four straight wins, including a sweep of a three-match trip to North Carolina. AU has won 10 of its last 11 matches, including going 6-0 in the Patriot League.

“Tennis got us over it,” Schnell said. “It’s our outlet. It’s like two or three hours of the day where you can grind it out and not worry about it. Now we are playing every match like it’s our last match — because that is sort of what it could be.”

That regular-season title earned AU the right to serve as host to this weekend’s league tournament, with the winner earning an NCAA tournament bid.

And while fundraising efforts are under way — Bailey has been told they will need to raise about a $3.5million endowment for the university to reconsider — the Eagles know they need to win to gain support and have any chance of saving their successful-but-expendable program.

“It will be a relief to win it, honestly,” Jaysingh said. “It has been a very stressful semester. It is hard to focus on school because it is always on your head, ‘We need this team to do well for us to keep the support. We need to raise money. We need to do well.’”

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