Mixed emotions circle around K-State equestrian closure

K-State's Alexis Graves competes in the Equitation Over Fences against Texas A&M at Timbercreek Stables in Manhattan, Kansas on October 5, 2013. Alexis scored a 78, edging Texas A&M's Leah Chenelle by one point.

As Sarina Irwin ponders her association with the K-State equestrian team, her emotions run high, knowing the team she has come to appreciate through volunteer work has only months before their doors close.

Whether it’s women from the team who volunteer on the weekends or those who stop by during the week at the T. Russell Reitz Animal Shelter in Manhattan, Irwin can’t help but focus on the futures of the women she cares about so deeply.

“Heartbroken,” Irwin, who helps run the volunteer program at the shelter, said. “I’m absolutely heartbroken for all those girls and the coaches. They work so hard and they really care about what they’re doing. They really care about who they are in the community.”

In a release Monday, K-State Athletics announced its decision to close the equestrian program at the conclusion of the 2015-16 academic year. Women’s soccer will officially take the program’s spot at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year.

As the news of the program’s closing continues to spread, so does the disappointment.

“Right down to the lady who donates the boxes for the cats to hide in, I told her about it and she said, ‘I’m going to write a letter,'” Irwin said. “I told her that I was going to talk to someone at the Collegian and she told me to tell them that (she’s) upset too.”

Despite the announcement, women from the team have already responded in a big way for Irwin and the staff at T. Russell Reitz.

“I had girls who were scheduled to volunteer (Tuesday) and they came,” Irwin said. “I talked to a couple of them, but I didn’t want to push it. They all had these looks of not wanting to talk about it, but they still came and volunteered. That’s just the type of girls that they are.”

After spending her collegiate career on the equestrian team, College of Education academic adviser, Lindsey Morford, has had trouble wrapping her mind around the announcement.

“It was definitely a shock,” Morford said. “It was not something that I had seen coming just because I didn’t have super close ties to the team for a couple of years. I’m disappointed in the decision that the athletics department made, but I’m more disappointed … the NCAA doesn’t see equestrian as a potential sport.”

Despite the decision, she said she commends K-State Athletics and its staff for handling the situation promptly and professionally.

“I really respect how (Athletic Director) John Currie is handling the situation and how he said he’d honor the scholarships of the girls coming in and coach Maxwell’s contract,” Morford said. “I know there are a lot of things that go into timing and it certainly is unfortunate in that regard.”

With the announcement comes uncertainty about the number of women that will return for competition in 2015-16. Although she sees some looking to step away, Morford hopes others will see an opportunity to close K-State’s equestrian tenure in a big way.

“There are student athletes from all over the country and they came here for the equestrian team,” Morford said. “It’s a big part of what drew them here. Depending on how connected they feel to the university, that will determine whether they feel it’s best to come back next year.”

Athletes from the equestrian team were not made available for comment following Monday night’s announcement.

“I hope the public can understand the sensitivity of this matter and how hard this is on our student-athletes,” Maxwell said in quotes provided by K-State Athletics. “They are a strong group who want to stay focused on the task at hand for the next year and a half. We appreciate the public’s support in respecting their privacy and helping our program go out strong.”

When pondering her relationship with Maxwell, Morford said she hopes the sixth-year K-State coach can respond not only in the following year and a half, but as she pursues opportunities at the conclusion of the 2015-16 season.

“She’s put so much into that team,” Morford, who had Maxwell as a coach and co-worker, said. “She has done a good job and I feel for her. This isn’t the end for her. There is a lot of potential, whether it’s in Manhattan or somewhere else with another team, I know she will have plenty of opportunities out there.”