Lauren Punk, a freshman at La Salle University, a softball player, got the email Tuesday from La Salle’s athletic director. There was a Zoom meeting that day, attendance mandatory.
“We all hopped on thinking that it was going to be about, if you live in Pennsylvania, you can go to campus and practice,” Punk said.
In the year 2020, the year of COVID-19, pop-up mandatory Zoom meetings don’t faze anybody. Maybe this actually would be some good news.
"Right when I got the email, I said, ‘Keep your fingers crossed.’ "
No, Punk wasn’t ready for what came next. La Salle was cutting seven sports at the end of the academic year. Sports being cut include three women’s sports -- softball, volleyball, and tennis. Also, four men’s programs: baseball, swimming and diving, tennis, and water polo.
“Once I heard softball, I didn’t listen to anything after that,” Punk said over the phone Thursday afternoon. “I started bawling. My heart sank. I didn’t think it was real.”
A Bishop Eustace graduate from Cherry Hill, a softball player since age 6, Punk explained that she had given up "a lot of better offers -- it’s not like I had to go to La Salle. I bought in.” She had committed in late June of 2019, with no regrets about turning down St. John’s or Providence or Fairfield.
Now? She requested Thursday that her name be put into the NCAA transfer portal. The months ahead will take some sorting out. La Salle still will have a spring softball season and Punk said she’d like nothing more than to play that season with these girls who were her teammates, who had together endured all 2020 has had to offer. “Go out with a bang,” Punk said.
But if some school wants her for their softball team -- “Deep down, I know the sooner I’m there, I’m better off.”
Think about 2020 for all the freshmen in all the sports that were just cut by La Salle. Especially the spring sports.
“We didn’t have a spring season,” Punk said, since the pandemic included taking a final season from high school spring-sport seniors.
Of 2020 and its drive-through graduations and online ceremonies, Punk said, “I’m not sure how much more downhill it can go. Missing spring season and missing the end of my senior year, as much as anything, I can’t ever get it back.”
She’s curious about La Salle’s timeline -- furious might be a better word -- since her sport apparently was potentially on the chopping block the whole time she was planning to come to the school.
“I’m wondering how they chose the programs they cut. And if they really did their best to raise money and fund everything. They prided themselves on having 25 sports. How could you not think about the future?”
“I’m wondering how they chose the programs they cut,” Punk said. “And if they really did their best to raise money and fund everything. They prided themselves on having 25 sports. How could you not think about the future?”
La Salle sent the following statement Friday from athletic director Brian Baptiste: “As you might imagine, reaching this decision and making Tuesday’s announcement was difficult because we knew it would be devastating for our student-athletes and our entire community. After speaking with the impacted student-athletes Tuesday, we have had a number of follow-up conversations with student-athletes and their families and have more scheduled. We know this is a heartbreaking situation for them and we will continue to make ourselves available to address their questions and help them through their next steps. The University has pledged to honor existing scholarship aid to affected student-athletes who wish to remain at La Salle and offer guidance on the transfer process for student-athletes who wish to continue their careers at other institutions.”
Baptiste continued: “The evaluation of the structure of our athletics department began upon my hire and arrival at La Salle, and our department concluded that process just recently. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the evaluation. At the end of that detailed analysis, it became readily clear that the current sport-offering structure at La Salle was neither a sustainable model, nor was it fair to our student-athletes. Colleges and universities around the country are having to make similarly difficult decisions about the future of their sport offerings and departments. We made this decision to ensure that we are able to provide our student-athletes with a quality Division I student-athlete experience that they deserve and expect.”
The truth on the timing: There is no good time. There is always a freshman class, always an incoming recruiting class, commitments made. Waiting until after letters of intent have been signed is a worse time. There is always someone feeling exactly like Lauren Punk and her teammates feel right now.
A new era in La Salle softball?
Punk, a shortstop, said she liked how La Salle head coach Brooke Darreff, a former Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, was brought in from the St. Joseph’s coaching staff -- “they brought her in to flip the program around. I thought it would be really cool to be part of that.”
With her class, Punk said, Darreff would have a complete team of players she had recruited herself. “It would be cool to work hard and see how far we could get,” Punk said.
Nobody was denying this was a rebuilding situation, she said. La Salle had gone 12-33 in 2019, was 0-10 in 2020 when the season was shut down. Part of La Salle’s stated rationale for cutting sports was that they didn’t have the resources to be competitive in all the sports.
The 2020 changes, while not preparing her for this, had become a constant. No fall sports. Then she wouldn’t be on campus this fall, classes would be virtual. That’s why another Zoom call wasn’t any big deal.
“Our coaches have been doing a really good job, posting videos of drills, meeting on Zoom calls,” Punk said. “I’ve been practicing with my club team.”
The New Jersey Gators held workouts lately in nearby Voorhees, so that was a help to her sanity.
Thursday, Punk had three online classes -- macroeconomics, psychology, computing and business -- and logged in for all of them, staying busy.
“La Salle was my dream school,” Punk said. “I loved all the girls, all the coaches. I got excited when I got gear. I was just about to get a customized glove.”
The team has had multiple Zoom calls since Tuesday, Punk said. Nothing Zoomy about them, though. Quiet calls.
“There’s just like a heaviness in the air,” Punk said. “Nobody really knows what to say.”