By Steven Marcus firstname.lastname@example.org
When Dowling College in Oakdale began its path to closure in late May over financial difficulty, about 240 of its athletes were forced to look elsewhere.
Thirteen players on the women's lacrosse team and their coach didn't have to look far. The group banded together and formed a new program 30 miles west at New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury.
Dowling's Golden Lions are now the NYIT Bears, and the players are looking forward to January when they begin practice for the spring season. This will be the first women's lacrosse team in NYIT's history.
The NCAA does not keep records on the most student-athletes to transfer from one school to another and play the same sport. Still, having virtually an entire team transfer together to a new school is a rarity in collegiate athletics.
"We're going to be more determined,'' said senior attacker Katie Meinecke of Manorville, who scored an East Coast Conference-high 52 goals last season for Dowling. "Raise the bar and make a statement. We aren't Dowling anymore. We're NYIT. We're the same team, but we're representing a new school."
As Dowling's demise became imminent, the NYIT administration acted quickly to hire coach Kerri Handras, a Stony Brook University graduate who was 115-39 and won two ECC titles in nine seasons at Dowling. Dowling was 15-2 last season under Handras, ranked as high as fifth in the nation among NCAA Division II women's lacrosse teams, and made and won its first NCAA tournament game.
NYIT radically altered its five-year timetable for adding women's lacrosse. NYIT athletic director Duane Bailey said he spoke with President Edward Guiliano, who gave him the go-ahead to interview Handras. She was contacted by NYIT on May 31 and hired on June 6, Bailey said.
"When I caught wind of the situation [at Dowling] and what might be happening, it just seemed like a really good fit," Bailey said.
Guiliano was immediately on board.
"You could potentially acquire a coach and whole team pretty much from the get-go,'' Guiliano said. "You'd be performing at a very high level, so I said, 'Go get the coach.' "
Handras, the mother of 1-year-old twin boys, was trying to keep her players calm during a frantic barrage of emails from other schools trying to recruit them. The team met with Handras in her Dix Hills home.
"I said, 'Don't sell yourself short, don't panic. I know I can find a home for everybody.' I said, 'This is just between you and me, there's a possible opportunity at NYIT.'"
The players were willing to wait on their coach's appointment.
"We have the utmost trust in her," senior goalkeeper Lauren Young of Centereach said. "She's done everything for us, we'd do anything for her." The players shudder to think what would've happened if NYIT did not add the sport or hire their coach. "We would have been everywhere," Young said. "We wouldn't be together."
Senior defender Erin Smith of Wantagh said, "Originally, I was really upset Dowling wasn't going to be where I finished. But we're all here and finishing together.''
Two players from last season's Dowling team did not end up at NYIT, but the 13 who transferred will make up a majority of the NYIT roster for the spring season. Handras was also the women's soccer coach at Dowling and six of her former players are now at NYIT.
The players' parents also appreciated the coach's efforts.
Debbie Znaniecki, whose daughter Karie of Port Jefferson is a senior attacker, said, "It's an amazing group of girls that stuck it out and stuck together and now have a new beginning from a horrible ending."
Bailey said all of the Dowling transfers who received athletic and/or financial aid are receiving similar packages at NYIT. He estimated the cost of adding the program at $475,000. Guiliano said the funding came from an operating surplus. "Nobody was disadvantaged because we did this," he said.
Some of the Dowling transfers had to change their majors, but most of their existing credits were accepted by NYIT.
Dowling was the second college on Long Island offering intercollegiate athletics to close. Southampton, a part of the Long Island University system, was shuttered in 2005. Bethpage-based Briarcliffe has announced plans to close in 2018.
"Coming here, emotion-wise we were all very nervous," senior midfielder Trisha Serras of Lindenhurst said of the move to NYIT. "Now I feel like the nervousness has turned into excitement. Competitive-wise we're still on the same level. We're just going to grow for the future. Life is about changes."
NYIT competes in the same NCAA Division II conference that housed Dowling's teams.
"It's like a new franchise moving from city to city," ECC commissioner Robert Dranoff said. "For us as a conference it was huge."
Former Dowling athletic director Melody Cope was thrilled that the players found a new home.
"You want the best for them," said Cope, now an associate athletic director at St. Joseph's in Patchogue. "It was a tough situation and we're just fortunate they landed in a very positive situation."