April 22, 2015

Curtains on UW-Oshkosh men’s soccer?

By Christan Shirk

The 2015 fall season will be the team's last unless players, alumni and supporters can convince administration officials to reverse their decision.

On April 6, the UW-Oshkosh athletic department announced its decision to terminate the men’s tennis and men’s soccer programs following the 2015-16 school year. Proposed reductions in the state’s funding of its university system has been cited as the reason for needing to cut some athletic programs, something that the university had already been considering for the past five years. With the elimination of the two teams, the number of varsity sports will decrease to 19: eight men’s programs and eleven women’s programs.

If cuts needed to be made, men’s teams were always going to be the most likely targets as the school continues to pursue Title IX compliance. Despite one more varsity team for women, male student-athletes currently out-number their counterparts 58% to 42%, the inverse of the general student body make-up. Axing the two men’s programs will improve the gender imbalance by 2%.

The primary reason given for men’s tennis and men’s soccer, specifically, being selected for elimination was the lack of a conference championship in these sports (the remaining 19 men’s and women’s teams participate in a WIAC championship which, by the conference’s own stipulations, requires five participating institutions). The second criterion in the decision-making process was the existence of an automatic berth for the conference to a sport’s national championship.

Athletic Director Darryl Sims’ decision, made without any public discussion and apparently without any conversations with current and former coaches and players, had the full support of the university chancellor Andrew Leavitt. The announcement came as a shock to current and former men’s soccer coaches and players who are understandably bewildered with emotions ranging from disappointment to anger. Feeling blindsided by the decision, there are complaints that the process was rushed, lacked transparency, and did not involve input from any of those affected by the decision. Moreover, some believe that if the financial challenges had been disclosed to alumni over the past few years, there would have been sufficient time to seek and collaborate on solutions to avoid the need to cut entire programs.

Even outside the Titan soccer family there has been disbelief that such a successful program would be eliminated. The men’s soccer program has posted thirty straight winning seasons since its 6-7-0 inaugural campaign, the fourth longest active streak behind heavyweights Ohio Wesleyan, Messiah, and Williams and tied for eighth longest all-time in Division III men’s soccer. That adds up to an impressive overall .750 winning percentage. The Titans advanced to the NCAA Tournament Final Four a total of four times spread across three different decades; only seven active Division III men’s teams have done so more times. Altogether, UW-Oshkosh is among top ten or so Division III men’s soccer programs over the past 30 years.

The 1994 UW-Oshkosh Titans finished the season undefeated (18-0-3) when they were eliminated on PK's in the national semifinal. 

Among the thirty winning seasons were two one-loss campaigns and an undefeated one. From 1991 to 2003, the Titans made the NCAA Tournament ten out of thirteen years, including three of their Final Four appearances. In 1994 Oshkosh came up short in a penalty kick shootout to eventual champion Bethany (W.V.) in the national semifinals, finishing their season an undefeated 18-0-3. In 2003, their lone loss came in the semifinals at the hands of eventual champion Trinity (Tx.). But perhaps their strongest squad was the high-scoring 2000 edition, led by Player of the Year Scott Deopere, which bowed out in the semifinals to host Rowan at 20-2-0.

The men's soccer program at Oshkosh was started in 1984 by Toby Bares who would establish himself as one of the top men’s coaches in Division III soccer, compiling a 344-99-38 (.755) record over his 26 years at the helm. Replacement Wytse Molenaar would lead the Titans to their fourth Final Four in 2010, his first season in charge.

Men’s soccer alumni have begun organizing and exploring how they can convince the athletic director and chancellor to reconsider their decision. A public awareness campaign is underway including the establishment of a website, www.saveuwosoccer.com, and facebook page “Save Our Titans”. And despite Chancellor Leavitt categorically ruling out fundraising as a means to save the soccer program, alumni have initiated a fundraising project. Alumni are hoping to rally enough support that they can at least get Leavitt and Sims to talk to them. But Leavitt has been adamant that the decision is final and will not be reconsidered and that he is not open to sitting down with alumni and players.

Comments or feedback for the author?  Email Christan Shirk.

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