Human Cost Of Eliminating Women’s Water Polo; Hartwick Senior McKenty Speaks Out

Editor’s Note: On February 28, Hartwick President Margaret Drugovich and the school’s Board of Trustees announced they were eliminating Division I athletics. Men’s soccer would be downgraded to Division III—and join the small upstate New York’s college’s 15 other DIII programs.

Women’s water polo, which has existed since 2001, would be terminated at season’s end. This is one in a series of posts that address the decision-making behind this action by President Drugovich—and the water polo’s community’s response.

The saga at Hartwick College—where men’s soccer is being downgraded from Division I to DIII and women’s water polo is being eliminated at the end of this season—is taking its toll on the college’s young athletes. Earlier this week Katie McKenty, a senior from New Zealand who over her four years in Oneonta has been a leader in and out of the pool, spoke about her experience with the process of abruptly cutting a program with 17 years of tradition and success.

What’s striking is McKenty’s stoicism in the face of what has struck many as an unfathomable act—one of the best women’s water polo programs in the country being shuttered in the midst of a break-out season—and her admirable affection for her teammates, coaches and an institution that, initially, offered so much.

The interview with McKenty follows a meeting on Friday, March 16 between President Drugovich, select members of the Hartwick Board of Trustees, Alan Huckins, Head Water Polo Coach, Ashleigh Huckins, Assistant Coach and Alan’s wife, and the 24 players from the Hartwick women’s water polo team.

– New Zealand water polo player ends up in upstate New York

It’s a tradition for Coach Huckins. He’s been here for 15 years and recruited many girls from New Zealand including Ricci Ferigo, Kirsten Hudson, Nat Seabourn, Jessica Dorman and Sasha Freeborn. His first team in 2004 had a couple of New Zealanders. It’s just been a tradition.

– Did you meet Coach Huckins before you signed?

I already signed and then met the assistant coach, Ashleigh Huckins. She came to New Zealand to watch a Pan-Pacific Tournament, and that’s when I met her.

– You didn’t go to Hartwick before you signed…

No!

– Were you recruited by any other American schools?

Wagner College in Staten Island. I looked into San Jose State—they were my two other main schools. I was in contact with a lot of other places. It was just dependent upon finances—what I could get in scholarships.

– What other factors influenced your decision to attend Hartwick?

I liked the idea of a small school. New Zealand’s tiny. A big school would scare me. The scholarship helped; knowing that New Zealanders have been here made me feel comfortable.

But I wouldn’t be at Hartwick without water polo.

– How were you and your teammates affected by the timing of President Drugovich’s announcement that water polo would be eliminated after this season?

It was heartbreaking. The boys [from the Hartwick men’s soccer team] went in for their meeting at 12:15 pm. We could tell something was up for both DI teams because we’re very close with the soccer boys. Our meeting was at 12:45.

An email went to the entire school at 12:43. We’d just watched all the boys walk out—they weren’t allowed to speak to us so they just walked off—and then we were standing there. We had a few minutes before we had to go inside and then the email came through.

With technology these days, it came straight to our phones, so all of us opened our phones—we’re standing outside crying and crying. We ran in and yelled!

The President wasn’t even there. A VP, Gregg Fort, was elected to give us information. He couldn’t really answer any questions—he wasn’t involved in the decision. He was only there to deliver the news to us that we could stay or we could transfer and who to talk to about our scholarships.

We had our meeting at midday and then had training at 3 p.m. We felt numb.

The coach was great. He was so supportive and he lit a fire under us—and when we went into Indiana we knew we had to win that game to prove that we deserved our DI status.

– Over the past three weeks it’s been a roller coaster of emotions for you and your teammates—and last Friday you had a meeting with President Drugovich and select members of the Hartwick Board of Trustees.

We actually didn’t want to speak with Margaret Drugovich. We’d seen her enough. We’d had an open forum with her the week before—she passed a lot of the decision and the fault on to the Board, so we were there to speak with them. We wanted to show them how poor of a decision this was and how severe of a result they’ll get from it.

We just wanted them to see what they’d done and trying to get them to consider a re-vote.

– What was the response from the trustees at that meeting?

It was quite disappointing walking in there. There are 25 board members and only eight of them came for us to plead our case too.

Frances Landrey, the chair of the board, opened up the meeting. We made a statement and asked our coach to speak. That was very emotional and he spoke well [on our behalf].

They didn’t really have a response for us—so we reiterated a lot of what [Coach Huckins] said. There was one board member, David Long, and he played Division I soccer [at Hartwick]. Next year he’s going to be the chair, and you could tell that he felt the emotion.

The others sat there—and any topic we brought up was pushed aside. It all came back to finances. I made a point to speak about our success, and I asked was that even considered. In the letter to the whole school about why we had been dropped [the Board] made a point that men’s soccer had been [dropped down to DIII] because of a lack of success. They didn’t say anything about our success; the point is—if you’re going to use that as a point for dropping them, wouldn’t our success be a reason for keeping us?

[I mentioned]: What if we go to NCAAs” Mr. Landrey said: “That’d be terrific, but it wouldn’t change anything.”

– Was there any discussion about how funds might be solicited to cover costs?

We never got the opportunity before the decision was made… there was no negotiation about the budget. It was: There’s no money.

That was one of our points: How come we had no warning of this? We could have asked for donations and done some fundraising.

David Long spoke up and said that in 2004 when this also came up, he fought [to maintain DI status] and they raised $1.5 million. Apparently, that only funded the program for a couple of years.

They didn’t give us the opportunity to fundraise because they didn’t think it worked the last time.

– You also recently held a senior day celebration for you and your teammates. What was the mood of that event?

We all felt pretty deflated and we didn’t have any seniors my junior year, but freshmen and sophomore years it was a big thing and the seniors were so emotional. We were all looking around at all the girls and thinking: This isn’t about us today; this is about the whole team because this could be the last water polo game ever played at Hartwick.

– You’re in the midst of a season where Hartwick has a shot at NCAAs. How does all the drama impact the team’s play?

It’s a struggle. Three days before we were scheduled to play our first CWPA game the announcement came.

It’s a roller coaster. Sometimes it can be super motivating and you just want to prove everyone else wrong. Other times, when it’s getting hard and you just want to… I don’t know how to explain it. You just feel defeated. Like: Why am I doing this? The school doesn’t support us.

It’s quite hard but you’ve got to just focus on using that as motivation.

– Given that you’re a senior, how are you able to provide leadership and guidance for the younger players on the Hawks’ roster?

A lot of the sophomores are nursing majors, so—given the way that the Hartwick nursing program is structured, they don’t have the opportunity to easily transfer.

My advice to a lot of them is: Stay this next year, get your scholarship and try to graduate in May 2019 and then you’ve got the two years of eligibility—and try and use that to play in graduate school.

For the freshmen, my advice is: if this program doesn’t get reinstated, get out of here. The school obviously doesn’t care so why are you sticking around for them?!

It’s a feeling of betrayal.

– Are players’ scholarships are guaranteed for next year?

There was a letter sent out: they are guaranteed just for one year. it’s “extraordinary aid” is what they call it. From hearsay—I haven’t researched it—[Hartwick] is one of the only institutions that isn’t guaranteeing scholarships through to graduation.

When programs have been cut at other institutions—I know that Missouri State cut their field hockey team, and they guaranteed all the scholarships through to graduation. Which I personally think is what Hartwick should do for all of DI athletes. They signed a contract for four years and the same is true for those nursing majors who are going to get a scholarship for a year and then in a senior year they basically missed out.

– As you reflect on your time at Hartwick, what is it that comes to mind about your experience there?

It’s the international students and the family we created. It’s primary soccer and water polo; a lot of us are internationals. There are other internationals who are on campus as well, but the family that we created within our sports teams, from our coaches—the rest of the school is such a close community, as there are only 1,400 kids.

How much they enjoy having diversity and how much we’ve enjoyed being here.