The tennis teams weren't at the USC Aiken Tennis Complex on Thursday afternoon, but each of the 15 players on the men's and women's rosters were there in name.
Those names, written on index cards and affixed to the fencing and netting around the courts, joined other signs and balloons bearing messages of support and disappointment following the announcement that the university would be transitioning the tennis teams to club sports following this season.
"To be honest, I'm really surprised with the decision of the university because the tennis team right now is one of the best teams in the athletes' environment," said Alejandro Chavarria, a sophomore goalkeeper from Spain on the USCA soccer team, who was playing tennis on the courts Thursday. "So I'm really surprised and kind of disappointed, too, because I have a lot of friends on the team and we are really excited about the Peach Belt Tournament."
This announcement comes during a period of great success for USCA tennis, with the teams combining for a 28-5 record this season – the men are ranked sixth in the country and are the No. 2 seed in this weekend's Peach Belt Conference Tournament, and the women are ranked 36th and are the No. 4 seed in the PBC.
Each has made history this season, earning landmark victories and bringing home athletic and academic awards from the league office. And each team has a chance at conference and national championships.
That called into question the timing of the announcement, which "comes after a thorough review of all sports offered at USC Aiken and an analysis of the demand for the sport, scholarship needs, and operational costs," according to a release from the athletic department.
Though the decision was part of a larger strategic plan for the university, USCA Director of Athletics Jim Herlihy said Friday he had some influence on the timing because it was something important to him.
"When we announced it prior to going to the Peach Belt Conference Tournament, we became compliant with an NCAA by-law that allowed all of our tennis student-athletes to be immediately recruited by any institution, including the Peach Belt schools, without the normal compliance restrictions and rules that prevent that kind of recruiting," he explained.
That, as Herlihy put it, is a golden ticket of sorts with the NCAA. He wanted the tennis players to, if they chose to leave, have as many options as possible. He said if this announcement waited until after the postseason, they wouldn't be able to be immediately recruited.
"We have some really good players, as you know," he said. "A lot of them have indicated to me that they would like to continue their career, if possible. Some have indicated that they would like to graduate from USC Aiken.
"I talked to them face-to-face on Tuesday before the announcement came out, and I told them, 'Look, if you want to go, we're doing this now to give you every opportunity.' We've heard from a number of schools, both Peach Belt and from outside of the Peach Belt, that are interested in recruiting some of our players. By wording it and doing it when we did, the NCAA allows them to do that."
The release stated, and Herlihy reiterated Friday, that USCA will honor the scholarships of the players who decide to stay and complete their undergraduate degrees. He said that even if it helps just one player, he wanted to give as many options as possible to a very young and talented group of athletes.
Victoria Giannaccini is the lone senior tennis player, meaning 14 of 15 players have a decision to make about the remainder of their athletic and academic careers. All but one player came from overseas, leaving behind a life far away to play for the Pacers. Then there's the case of Alex Sklizovic, who chose to stay home and play for USCA after winning championships at South Aiken.
Part of the athletic department release stated that, by demoting tennis to a club sport "the university is making way for the addition of more high-demand Division II athletics." Several of the signs posted at the tennis center Thursday referred to the addition of lacrosse, but Herlihy denied any plans to add that to the athletic department.
"There are no imminent plans to add any sport. Obviously, we're bringing back men's and women's cross country in the fall," he said. "We don't have plans right now for anything at this point. We'll look at what makes sense with the university's strategic plan moving forward."
In the meantime, though, USCA tennis will play its final matches at this level. Quarterfinal and semifinal matches are Saturday in Florence at the PBC Tournament, and the rest will be determined from there.
"They are really focused on the tournament. I feel they are going to do a really good tournament," Chavarria said. "They have a lot of chances to maybe get the PBC championship. I have a lot of hopes in them."