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NCAA Oct 31, 2012

Part I–Spinning a tangled web: University of Richmond men’s soccer team fights for program

Note: This is part one of a two-part story.

By Jimmy LaRoue

The banner hanging outside Robins Stadium couldn’t be less true for the members of the beleaguered University of Richmond men’s soccer team.

“It’s a great time to be a Spider.”

The program may not be at its former top-25 heyday, but under interim coach Leigh Cowlishaw, who took over for former coach Clint Peay just weeks before the start of the season after Peay took a job with the Under-17 U.S. men’s soccer team, the program started the season with an upset of then-No. 18 James Madison.

Cowlishaw and the team looked to build upon that, and the former successes of a program that, as he noted, had gone toe-to-toe with the likes of a Claudio Reyna-led University of Virginia program, even going so far as to put a plan together to build a new soccer-specific stadium on campus.

Up until about 30 days before the Sept. 21 announcement, Cowlishaw, along with former player Scott Byrnes–a captain of the team when Cowlishaw first came to Richmond – and many associated with the Spider men’s soccer program believed it would remain.

However, hints of the program’s possible demise and signs that it wasn’t a keen university priority surfaced. The team had already lost its on campus home to the football team and was forced to play games off campus, with the university unwilling to bus students to home games to support the team. Current players also note the lack of university presence at its games.

“The school has never supported us,” said freshman player Chris Hill.

Cowlishaw said, too, that after the men’s soccer alumni had gotten together and put the action plan in place 18 months ago, it sought support of the university. Byrnes said that when he tried to present it to outgoing athletic director Jim Miller and current university president Dr. Ed Ayers, he was told to take it to director of development Tim Gutenberger.

While Guternberger told Byrnes that the program was safe, he said he got lip-service on implementing the plan.

Players like Hill, meanwhile, were recruited on the premise that there would be a soccer program for the four years they’d be in school. Junior goalkeeper Zac Brown, until recently, worked in the university’s admission’s office giving campus tours and proudly selling the school to potential students. (Read why Brown stepped down here.)

They say that promise, along with the ethical promise embodied in the school’s principles, was shattered Sept. 21.

• • •

The meeting, just four hours before a scheduled home game that evening against Virginia Military Institute, was a stunner for the players. Thinking they were having a team meal, they got served with something else instead.

“We were all just joking around, and people were joking around saying, ‘What if they came in and told us our program was cut?’ We were just joking around,” Hill said. “And then athletic directors came in, coaches came in, and we were like, ‘This isn’t good.’”

The look on the faces of the coaches and administrators gave away the news: the men’s soccer program was going to be cut.

“It was a shock for me because we had been working behind the scenes with the administration for the past 18 months,” Cowlishaw said. “We formed a soccer steering committee. We had a five-point plan to bring U of R soccer back to former glory.

“I certainly felt being asked to take over the position was, for two reasons: one, because I was an excellent candidate to oversee this process in the next two or three months, maybe bring a little more high profile back to soccer, and then, most importantly, I really felt I was allowing time now for the administration to go out and recruit a top class head coach for the position. So yes, in that regard, it was a total shock to find out this was actually about to happen.”

The university put out an announcement the same afternoon announcing that this would be the last season for men’s soccer and track, while men’s lacrosse club program would be elevated to Division I status.

Brown and Hill said they, along with most of the team, shed tears at the news. As did Cowlishaw, who said he asked those making the announcement to leave so he could get his team composed enough to play. The men’s track and field team was waiting outside to hear about their program being cut as well.

“Me personally, it was just tears initially, because I was just so disappointed and I felt betrayed by the school in a way,” Hill said.

He was on the phone with his parents soon after, and broke down again.

Another current Spider men’s soccer player, Parker Patterson, was not at the initial announcement, as he and several other players were still in class and weren’t privy to the news until the team’s pregame meal.

Patterson, upon being told the news, thought it was a prank.

Then he, too, broke down as others had before him.

Though feeling betrayed, they still had a game to play.

They went out and defeated VMI, and won at Liberty in double-overtime two days later, but the Spiders have lost six of their last eight heading into Friday’s home game against Virginia Commonwealth, which may well be the last for the men’s soccer program barring the decision being overturned.

The Spiders have been competitive, and in its first home game after news spread about the program’s demise, Robins Stadium drew a crowd of 2,112 as a show of support for the team.

“There’s a lot of support from [the student body], which has been great,” Hill said.

Said Cowlishaw: “We’re going down two roads at the same time. We’re fully committed to winning soccer matches, and looking towards the spring and next season, believing that we’re going to be here. And we’re fully committed to the road that, whenever players have opportunities to consider options to transfer, we’re following that path as well.”

[ +Read part II of this feature here ]