Victoria Dixon

Former ECU women's tennis senior Victoria Dixon prepares to hit the ball during a tennis match last season, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Players and coaches were thought to be affected indefinitely when four sports teams were cut in May 2020 from East Carolina University, however, in a Jan. 7 announcement from Interim Chancellor Ron Mitchelson, both the women’s tennis and the women’s swimming and diving team were reinstated for the department to remain in compliance with Title IX.

Mitchelson said the women’s teams will be the only teams reinstated for each program, with no plan to reinstate the men’s counterparts. The start date for the women’s teams programs is still to be determined.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented financial disruption to operations across the university and exacerbated the already significant financial challenges faced not only by our athletics department, but also the university,” Mitchelson said in a Jan. 7 press conference. “Gender equity is a priority to our institution, and we will continue to take all the necessary steps to be compliant with Title IX."

When the sports programs were cut in May 2020, 68 student-athletes and nine coaches were impacted, according to ECUPirates.com. Some athletes transferred to other universities to continue their athletic aspirations, according to a report by SwimSwam.com. Former ECU women’s tennis player Lisa Hofbauer was able to transfer to The Ohio State University, where she will spend her senior season, according to the team’s roster.

Kevin Woodhull-Smith, former assistant coach for the ECU swimming and diving team, was among the coaching staff who lost their jobs when the sport was cut in May 2020. He now holds the position of head coach for Barton College men’s and women’s swim and dive team.

“I think it’s great that they (ECU) brought back both teams,” Woodhull-Smith said. “It was hard last year when we heard the announcement that they were gone. It’s a difficult thing in college sports right now, but glad for the whole program, for ECU, and everyone that can come back.”

Woodhull-Smith spent eight years on the ECU swim and dive coaching staff, with the final three years as the head assistant coach. He said the men’s and women’s teams were successful both in the water and in the classroom. Woodhull-Smith helped lead the men’s team to four American Athletic Conference championships in his ECU career, and saw four athletes participate in six different National Collegiate Athletic Association national championship meets.

Now, he looks to continue his career in a new environment with the Bulldogs.

“I was really lucky and glad for this opportunity,” Woodhull-Smith said. “The team (Barton) has been good. The team has really bought into my training style and methods. We had one meet in the first semester (Nov. 7) and one meet this semester about a week ago (Jan. 16). It’s been going well. It’s very different in a lot of ways, but it’s still coaching.”

Several coaches were able to find new employment opportunities at other universities. According to SwimSwam.com, these include former ECU swim and dive assistant coaches Christa Saunders, who is now an assistant coach with the United States Military Academy West Point; Jesse Lyman, who is now the head diving coach at the University of Alabama; and Kate Moore, who is now an assistant coach with Washington State University. Former head coach of ECU swim and dive Matthew Jabs has yet to accept a new position.

Prior to the programs’ elimination, senior marketing major Victoria Dixon spent three years as a player on the women’s tennis team. Dixon did not choose to transfer in her final semester and decided to stay at ECU, and the impact of the university’s decision still stays with her. Even with the reinstatement, Dixon will not rejoin the team prior to her graduation in May.

“You (student-athletes) really relate college to your sport whenever you commit to go to a school,” Dixon said. “Like ECU isn’t the same school to me without tennis. Just driving by the athletic campus, that used to be a big part of my life, and now I feel very disconnected from that.”

Dixon spoke about how difficult it was to find a school to transfer to as a senior in the middle of the summer. With teams already having full squads, it was hard to get positive responses on such late notice. Dixon said after she made several phone calls to other universities in the weeks that followed the program’s elimination, she decided the best decision was to stay put and prepare for her senior year of college as just a student.

According to ECUPirates.com, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the ECU Athletic Department financially, which caused ECU Athletics Director Jon Gilbert and Mitchelson to make the decisions to cut programs. Dixon said if it wasn’t for tennis she would not have attended ECU, so she is grateful for the return of the sport, despite its elimination in May 2020.

“I’m happy that they have decided to do what is right,” Dixon said. “I understand that the financial implications are not great, but at the end of the day it’s discrimination, and I don’t want my school to be remembered like that.”

Dixon feels that the tennis program was on the chopping block long before it was cut. In May 2020, the blame was placed on financial struggles caused by COVID-19, but Dixon said there was tension prior to the pandemic.

She said the issues began when both the tennis program and the swim program were no longer able to practice at an on-campus facility. Both programs host meets and practices away from the Grady-White Boats Athletic Campus at ECU, but Dixon said that wasn’t the only clue that indicated the program’s end was near.

“Last year, we had a scheduled spring break trip to go down to Puerto Rico and play different teams,” Dixon said. “Come that end of January (2020), our coach was trying to schedule our flights. Somebody told us we weren’t allowed to go anymore.”

According to Dixon, the trip was scheduled months in advance, including scheduled matches against other schools, yet it was shut down before the team could leave at the end of February 2020. The women’s tennis team was able to still take a school-funded spring break trip according to Dixon, but it was to the state of Georgia, with no scheduled matches due to late notice.

Another indication that the program was close to the end was when former head tennis coach Tom Morris announced his retirement in the month of February. The retirement took effect on March 1, 22 years after he took the position, according to his biography on ECUPirates.

In a press conference on Jan. 7, Gilbert answered several questions in regards to the reinstatement of both women’s teams. He said despite the reinstatement of both teams, the financial struggles within ECU Athletics remain the same as they were in May 2020.

“I think both our staff and our coaches have done an excellent job of savings,” Gilbert said at the Jan. 7 press conference. “I think between all the decisions that were made in the month of May (2020), certainly the salary reductions, furloughs, operational budget savings, I believe to date we have saved north of $9 million in savings.”

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