Mount Holyoke’s decision to cut tennis program “really shocking,” according to players

The 2024 Mount Holyoke College tennis team. On May 13, those involved with the tennis program were informed that the school would be cutting the program, effective immediately.

The 2024 Mount Holyoke College tennis team. On May 13, those involved with the tennis program were informed that the school would be cutting the program, effective immediately. PHOTO VIA MOUNT HOLYOKE ATHLETICS

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 05-31-2024 4:03 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Earlier this month, the Mount Holyoke College tennis team say they were blindsided by an email from the school’s administration announcing that the program is being dropped.

On May 13, exactly two weeks following the end of the Lyons’ season, the institution said the decision to terminate its tennis program is effective immediately. According to Mount Holyoke players, the initial email lacked explanation as to the factors behind the decision.

Lyons tennis players have requested a two-year extension of the program, creating a petition to support their demand. If the request for an extension is denied, incoming first-year recruits are now left without a sport they originally thought they’d be playing.

A Mount Holyoke player told the Daily Hampshire Gazette that “the only real help [the school has] offered to anyone is to the new recruits, who have been assured they will be offered assistance when trying to transfer.”

Mount Holyoke did not respond to multiple requests for comment. President Danielle Holley did address the matter in a letter posted online to the community.

“Student players and coaching staff most directly impacted by these changes have been notified, and we will work with them to ensure a smooth transition,” she said. “I want to acknowledge the students, coaches, alums and families who have been involved with tennis at Mount Holyoke over the years; I celebrate the positive impact you have made to our community and to our scholar-athletes at the College.”

Co-captain Annika Chai was celebrating her birthday on May 13 when the school’s initial email popped up in her inbox. She said her day of joy spent with family flipped on its head in a heartbeat.

“When I first read the email that was sent out to the school, I had just come home to England, and it was actually also, annoyingly, on my birthday,” Chai said. “But yeah, it was really shocking. In the email, it didn’t really say it very clearly [at first], and then it just said the tennis program is not going to be a program anymore in the 2024-2025 academic year.”

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In the email, which was sent by Holley, a Zoom link was provided at the bottom to answer any questions those affected by the news may have. The Mount Holyoke roster included seven players this past season.

The meeting lasted 30 minutes as Holley and Director of Athletics Andrea Ricketts-Preston facilitated the conversation and listened to several tennis athletes voice their displeasure.

“My team and I were messaging each other saying, ‘Is this a joke?’” Chai said of the Zoom session. “We started thinking of all the reasons to counter them for why we shouldn’t be cut, and a big part of that was performance.”

Mount Holyoke wrapped up an 11-8 season this spring, a campaign that clinched a New England Men’s and Women’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) tournament berth for the 18th consecutive season.

What the players say they learned from the meeting was that representatives from the NEWMAC came to Mount Holyoke a few years ago and told the school they needed to find a way to be more competitive within their athletics programs, or show a commitment to doing so, otherwise their time in the conference was limited.

Chai said she felt Holley, who started her term as president last summer, gave into the pressure the NEWMAC put on her and the institution by cutting the tennis program. Mount Holyoke’s athletics teams have struggled in recent years — this past academic year the soccer team was 3-12-2, basketball went 2-23 and lacrosse won one game, for example.

In the Zoom session, Chai noted Holley wanted to impact the least number of athletes as possible — which could translate to receiving the least amount of backlash. Given that, the London resident thought the tennis program took the bullet.

“I think it’s a pretty accurate assumption to make that [the NEWMAC] wasn’t talking about the tennis team when they said our programs needed to be more competitive,” Chai said. “How do you increase the competitiveness of the department overall by cutting the most competitive program?”

During a second Zoom meeting held with players from the team and the same group of administrators, Chai said they were told it would cost $400,000 for the program to continue. But that number has since skyrocketed to a whopping $15 million.

In another email sent from Holley earlier this week, that $15 million figure was listed as what it would take to fund just one more season of Mount Holyoke tennis.

Chai said the team tried to question the number, and even said they would shorten their season if it would cost less money — but they were told that number wouldn’t change regardless of the length of the season.

“I don’t know where this number is coming from,” Chai said. “They said even if we minimized our season the number wouldn’t change.”

A large portion of that number would be needed for facility and court upgrades at the school. Mount Holyoke’s tennis courts are in poor condition, and would need major improvements in order to align with NEWMAC standards.

Shortly after the original call on May 13, Chai said she reached out to a NEWMAC representative searching for more answers. In an email back, they told her that they forwarded her message to the Mount Holyoke president, and that she would be able to speak more on the situation.

Back to square one.

“I emailed NEWMAC a few days ago basically asking them if this is what they wanted, if they wanted all of our programs to be gone,” Chai said. “And it was actually quite funny, because he said he forwarded my email directly to our president. I was (sarcastically) like, ‘OK, great.’ They’re all just trying to blame each other.”

Head coach Aldo Santiago recently wrapped up his 31st season as head coach of the tennis program, and assistant coach Eric Cestero has been with the program for 27 years. Chai said she and the rest of the team were disappointed to see their dedication pushed to the wayside.

“Our coach has been here for 31 years, our assistant coach has been here for 27 years, and we just had a great season where we finished fifth in the NEWMAC,” Chai said. “Our coaches deserve a lot more than the way they’ve been treated by the college recently.”

Chai also noted that the tennis team recently won the highest team GPA award out of the 12 programs on campus.

All things taken into account, it was nothing but a shock — and still is — to those involved with the tennis program at Mount Holyoke.

“We kind of heard rumors about cuts happening, and that maybe a team was going to be cut, but we thought that the decision was all going to be based on performance,” Chai said. “And the tennis team, by far out of all the other teams, is the best. We come fifth [in the NEWMAC] and everyone else comes last or tied for last. That’s nothing against them either. But out of everything I thought could have happened with the results of these cuts, I never imagined it was going to be the tennis team.”