On Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019 it became official that Knox College would no longer be sponsoring tennis for the 2020-21 academic year. The decision came after the conclusion of the women’s season in October. The men’s team will complete their season in the spring in what will be the last season of Knox Tennis for the foreseeable future.
The budget deficit that Knox College is facing certainly played a role in the discontinuation of the tennis programs. The athletic department had to find ways to best maximize the use of funds. Tennis fielded the smallest roster of all the athletic teams at Knox and it hadn’t been the most competitive in previous years- Since 2016, the women’s team has a record of 18-69 and the men’s team 5-66.
The decision to close the program was jarring, but not surprising to the players or the Head Coach, Meredith Witherell.
“When I first heard the news I was dismayed and disappointed but I was not surprised,” said Witherell via email.
Athletic Director Daniella Irle is big on the athletes having a great experience. “The goal is to provide, or at least recognize, the potential to provide an outstanding experience,” Irle said.
Tennis athletes couldn’t have a great experience because of the conditions of the court. Though it was built five years ago, the field isn’t equipped for both teams to have home fields.
“They didn’t play like normal hardcore surfaces,” Jared Schwarz, senior tennis player, said.
Schwarz has been a stalwart for the tennis team and Witherell spoke glowingly about his character, especially for a program that has been in turmoil.
“This young man has anchored the team for four years and has had what I feel is the most difficult position in the Midwest Conference. Jared never let the pressure bring him down and chose to play every match, every year. He encouraged his team members and helped bring home three Sportsmanship Awards,” Witherell said.
The tennis team was left without a home. Both teams couldn’t have matches on their home court, which hurt attendance, which was already lacking. In order to fix the field, it would take a significant chunk of money that the school isn’t in a position to give out right now.
Recruiting and fielding a whole roster was also a challenge for Knox, in part because of the conditions of the courts.. Tennis also isn’t the most popular sport in the Midwest. When Irle would have conversations with Witherell, they discussed the recruiting challenges.
“The head coach and I, have had quite a few conversations that tennis in this area is not growing. It’s restricting. We’re seeing fewer and fewer local type recruits, or the ability to get even regionally,” Irle said.
Both women’s and men’s tennis have experienced declining rosters and I struggled with recruiting. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to player recruitment is the condition of our on campus tennis courts,” Witherell said.
The recruiting challenges weren’t lost on Kathryn Allee. “We had a really hard time recruiting new players (last season) and we were definitely the bottom of our division, so we weren’t winning, we weren’t really out to compete, we weren’t really competitive,” she said.
The women’s tennis team fielded a roster of seven players that featured no seniors and only two freshmen. The team finished 0-9 in conference and 2-11 overall. They operated as a rebuilding team. They would love to win, but were more focused on development and getting the roster stronger in their own skills.
Knox is not the only school to discontinue its tennis teams. Beloit and Valparaiso have also dropped tennis Ñ but that still didn’t make the decision any easier for Irle.
“This is nothing anybody wants to do. Nobody signs on for this,” Irle said.
Sports play a pivotal role in the lives of many men and women across the world. Sports teach life lessons and can teach the importance of hard work and confidence. Tennis played a big role in both Schwarz and Allee’s lives.
Allee has been playing tennis since her freshman year of high school. She got into the sport because she wanted to pick up another sport in addition to Volleyball. Since fall athletes have to get on campus earlier, Allee got to come to Knox and experience the campus early. The early arrival afforded her the opportunity to get more familiar with the campus. It also gave her the chance to meet friends and learn more about herself.
“Tennis is a really amazing sport. It teaches you a lot about yourself because you have to be comfortable by yourself on the court. And then you also have to learn how you can peripherally support your teammates without actually being next to them when they’re playing,” Allee said.
Schwarz has played tennis for nine years. Schwarz played soccer before tennis and had been injured before and he wanted a non-contact but competitive sport.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful that I get to play out my last season. It hurts knowing that my friends, my teammates, they don’t,” the senior said.
However, he does believe that the team will get closer as a result of the announcement prior to the season.
“We all just really bonded around knowing that we have to make the most of the situation,” Schwarz said.
The big thing in sports is camaraderie. The bond you build between teammates is everlasting, especially for Allee.
“I made some of the best friends in my life that I have now. I get to live with them still. So, it’s not as tragic now. It definitely built a lot of friendships,” Allee said.
Though the sport is ending for both Allee and Schwarz, the impact the game has had goes beyond the courts they competed on.