Kansas State equestrian coach Casie Maxwell answered the phone and admitted she had seen better days.
“I’m doing my best to hang in there,” she said.
Nineteen hours had passed since Kansas State announced its decision to drop equestrian as one of its 16 sponsored sports and to replace it with women’s soccer. The changes won’t go into effect until 2016, but there was no escaping the fact that Maxwell and the student-athletes she advises are already lame ducks.
That’s difficult to accept — Maxwell said she was heartbroken — especially for a group that Tuesday achieved its highest ranking in the National Collegiate Equestrian Association rankings, checking in at No. 3.
“I can imagine that it would be difficult to swallow no matter if we had been historically successful or not,” Maxwell said. “However, the past few years of moving facilities, building up our roster and really having success at a high level definitely makes it hard. We’ve recruited a very special group of individuals who are completely committed to K-State and our equestrian program. Their passion and commitment will definitely make it hard to walk away from this when the time is necessary.”
Maxwell said K-State athletic director John Currie informed the equestrian team of the bad news Monday evening “in the best way possible.” K-State then released the information publicly.
The equestrian team was understandably devastated, but Maxwell said her riders took the news “as well as can be expected.” Currie eased some concerns by promising to honor scholarships for every equestrian member as long as they remain eligible, as well as the contracts of its coaches.
“I mentioned what a special group of athletes we have, and that really showed through last night when the news was delivered,” Maxwell said. “They are all sad and hurt and I expect the next few weeks will be a whirlwind of emotions for them.”
Maxwell said her team spent most of Tuesday at the equestrian complex, practicing for the season ahead. They have only 20 more months together, and they want to enjoy that time.
“They are an incredibly strong and tenacious group who will use this to come out on top,” Maxwell said. “They walked out of our meeting last night as a team, leaning on one another, and determined to win a national championship in these next two seasons, if that is the only opportunity left for them. I feel very confident that they will use this to motivate them, make the most of these next 20 months and end on the highest note possible. They will make the K-State family proud.”
When the end comes, equestrian will be a victim of numbers. Fewer than 40 NCAA institutions sponsor equestrian as a sport, and only 19 are Division I schools. In its release, K-State pointed out the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics recently recommended dropping equestrian as an emerging Division I sport. No matter what the leaders of college equestrian tried, it wasn’t growing.
Meanwhile, women’s soccer teams can be found everywhere. K-State is the only Big 12 school without a program.
For those reasons, Maxwell said she was concerned about the long-term future of college equestrian. She understands the decision. But she was not expecting K-State to drop her program so quickly.
“The fact is we have not added any schools in quite a few years, through no fault of anyone’s efforts or desires to do so,” said Maxwell before adding, “I do not believe the recommendation made by the CWA looks good for equestrian. I think there are going to be schools in the same position as K-State, but I honestly do not know other institution’s financial positions or commitment to the sport. For the sake of the sport itself, I hope everyone continues with their programs and this situation turns around, but it’s going to be a long road to get there.”
The road is short for K-State’s equestrian team from here.
Maxwell hopes for better days as the Wildcats try do something special before their journey ends.
“I am sure things will challenge us as we move through this process,” Maxwell said. “My goal as their coach is to keep everyone positive and enjoy these last 20 months with them in every way possible, being there for them every step of the way. I know they will savor every last moment and memory as student-athletes and I will do everything I can to ensure that we have as much fun as possible along the way.”