by Marcia Hunt*
“This is me begging and pleading, desperate for anyone to join the softball team,” said senior Kelly Agostini, captain of the Purchase softball team in an Instagram video posted to the platform on Jan.23. “To not get to say goodbye to the game I love so much would be heartbreaking for me.”
COVID-19 safety regulations canceled the softball team’s seasons last year and now at the start of another season, the team faces the same possibility. In September 2020, the team had 16 players on the roster, now they have eight.
“We just have the unfortunate problem that some [players] are choosing not to come back for the season,” said Agostini. The team needs at least nine players on the roster to play their season. Even if they had just nine players, it leaves very little room to compete if a player gets sick or injured, Agostini said.
Because most classes are remote, several of the team’s players are opting to complete their online classes at home rather than coming back to campus this semester. According to the team’s coach, Mark Sergio, this is the primary reason for the team’s roster issues.
“[A lot of our players] and/or their families decided financially it did not make sense to spend the money on room and board just to play softball while they are still taking their classes virtually,” said Sergio. “Some of the players that opted out believe that we will not have a season. By January, our team turned into nine players due to some financial concerns and academic eligibility issues.”
Brianna Palermo, a sophomore on the team, believes that there are underlying reasons beyond the pandemic for the softball team’s smaller roster.
“I think one of the biggest things is almost all of our team graduated in the 2018/19 season,” said Palermo. “Last year in the 2019/20 season we only had four returning players and our coach had to basically build us a whole new team. So, the team was already on shaky grounds last season that way.”
“What I see is that softball doesn’t have a lot on its side and I’ve seen this for a while,”’ she said. “In order to recruit girls to play for our school, it has to look like a good place to play.”
According to Palmero, the pandemic has only exposed pre-existing issues that the softball team has been facing.
“Our field shows nothing to new recruits that would make them want to come play for us,” she said. “We also only have one coach to do recruiting and coaching while baseball, for example, has had three to five revolving coaches the last few years. But the athletic department and our coach have been fighting for us to get a season and they are working hard for us.”
By renovating the softball field and replacing it with a well-lit, turf-covered field, it would be easier for the team to practice in the snowier, New York weather conditions—it would also look more attractive to prospective players.
Agostini also thinks recruitment has been an issue for the team prior to the pandemic.
“I feel as though the athletic department is doing everything they can now to help get our roster,” said Agostini. “The problem is recruiting in general. The other teams have nice turf fields or gyms or stadiums to help recruit people, this is not something our softball teams has. Our field looks almost like a sandlot.”
According to Sergio, there are other teams competing in the Skyline Conference who are struggling to get their rosters and facilities in order as well.
“There are schools in our conference and other conferences that have no home field to play or practice on,” he said. “Of course, a new facility would be great but there are programs that have less than we have. We have dirt, grass, fences and dugouts; enough to be successful.”
The Athletic Department's Director, Chris Bisignano, said that getting the softball field renovated has been planned for a while, but has never been something the school’s been able to go through with.
“The original plan was to re-turf the first field [for football, lacrosse and soccer] and then rebuild the softball field,” said Bisignano. “We wanted to make a replica of the baseball field, but we just didn’t have the funds to do that. Instead, we put money into renovating what was originally there and in the next wave of facility plans is redressing the softball field. A turfed, well-lit softball field is on the agenda but the pandemic certainly didn’t help us.”
According to Judith Nolan, the college’s Chief Financial Officer and Vice President for Operations, there have been talks about redoing the softball field years before the pandemic.
“If it didn't come to me, it's because it ultimately didn't get funded,” said Nolan. “But that doesn't mean it wasn't a bad idea that it wasn't discussed that it wasn't on some list. You know, a whole host of things. I just don't know, I'm not involved, start to finish the discussions. I'm going by memory. I don't remember everything. So it could have been raised several years ago. I don't recall. But it's not fresh in my mind.”
The athletic department gets loans from the college to do these large renovations and then have a few years to pay them back. The primary way the department has done this is by renting out facilities like the baseball and soccer field for other teams to use. This too has taken a hit because of the pandemic.
“The rental program pays back the money the college lent us, and it goes into the upkeep of these facilities,” said Bisignano. “Pre-Covid, the rental business was very lucrative.”
The facility rental profits also go towards helping the athletic department make ends meet year-round. The money goes towards helping teams with recruitment when coaches have to travel to recruitment events and other needs. According to Bisignano, the budgets for all the teams are enough to support successful seasons.
“Students pay mandatory fees, the money comes in, and we set the budgets up for our teams,” he said. “Then, whatever our athletic mandatory money falls short on, we supplement that with whatever money we earn through rentals to help support our teams.
All of our teams are funded equally based on the size of the roster and sport counterpart.”
According to Nolan, the rentals are the work of Bisignano.
“All of that rental money from the outside comes into an account,” she said. “He's allowed to use that to support Phys. Ed. So his entrepreneurial efforts, which are fabulous, helps to support the whole phys ed program.”
Now that the school is making less money through rentals, the budgets are now affected.
“I don't track exactly how each dollar goes out within their budget,” said Nolan. “It's just it's not much more up here, frankly, once a budget is allocated, I leave it to those who run the area to expend as necessary.” Neither Nolan, nor anyone from the athletic department, was able to provide this reporter with the full breakdown of the budget.
Like Sergio, Bisignano believes that the softball team’s smaller roster isn’t unique just to Purchase.
“All of the Division III schools are in trouble because COVID has hit,” he said. “A lot of students aren’t playing sports anymore. Some are afraid and some don’t have the opportunity, so that’s going to affect all colleges.”
He continued, “I really believe in the next two years you’re going to see some colleges go out of business, but you might see athletic departments rethink what they’re doing and pare back on some of their teams to help rebuild the programs.”
The Skyline Conference has already seen some of these cuts, with the Purchase’s Men’s Volleyball team and SUNY Old Westbury’s Women’s Lacrosse team not having enough players for the upcoming seasons.
Bisignano believes that for the softball team in particular, their recruitment problems lie mostly in the nature of the sport. The softball roster, he said, is always fairly tight.
“Some sports require more players,” he said. “Like in baseball, because of the pitching motion, you can only throw so much before you rest. Meanwhile, the way softball pitchers throw is not as harmful to their shoulders so they need fewer pitchers and less rest. The traditional baseball roster is 25-30 players, while a softball roster looks more like 13-15.”
Although baseball pitchers throw overhand, opposed to the more natural throw of a softball pitcher, which is underhand softball players experience the same fatigue and overuse injuries as their baseball counterparts, meaning extra players on the roster is a necessity.
The biggest reason the softball team is struggling to get a roster together however is the pandemic, according to Bisignano. Recruiting events and competitions have been canceled because of social distancing guidelines, and many high schools are not playing in the midst of the pandemic. With fewer people willing to play sports, Bisignano thinks that it’s made recruiting more difficult.
“It’s like going fishing,” he said. “If I got a big barrel and threw 100 fish in it and gave you a line, you’re going to catch a fish. But if I fill up a swimming pool and only throw three fish in it, you might not eat. Some sports aren’t as popular as others, so that’s why there’s not as many players on specific rosters.”
However, Bisignano has faith that Purchase’s athletes and coaches are going to remain diligent and rebuild their teams once the pandemic is over.
“I think that everyone is taking some lumps right now but when the bell rings, Purchase College is going to be up on top,” said Bisignano. “There definitely will be a readjustment to collegiate athletics going forward for all colleges across the country. Coaches are going to have to work a little smarter and work a little harder, but I believe in our people and I think the adjustment will end good.”
Since posting her video to Instagram and the Purchase Open Forum, Agostini reports that there are now three girls interested in playing, if they got cleared, the team would have 11 players.
As far as future softball teams are concerned, Sergio has been working restlessly to secure a larger roster for his softball team—despite the pandemic.
“I've been recruiting all year this past summer and fall,” he said. “Right now, we have three athletes committed to come in as freshmen next year, with two others still in the decision-making process.”
As the pandemic continues on, it will continue to expose flaws in the way college athletics are conducted; which may lead to more cuts for schools all throughout the Skyline Conference.
For student athletes like Agostini, they will continue to fight to play the sports that keep them happy, healthy and sane during a time of uncertainty.
“To any athlete who didn’t get their season, I am so sorry,” Agostini said. “I hear you, I see you and you’re not alone. It seems like it’d be the least of someone’s worries with everything else going on in the world but for a lot of people, myself included, athletics is such a safe place for them. Their mental health needs to be checked on too.”
*additional reporting and writing was done by Brendan Rose and Diana Gilday*