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USK student athletes Addison Alsbury, left, Chris Harper, center, and Arianna Rivas. The Coast News graphic
USK student athletes Addison Alsbury, left, Chris Harper, center, and Arianna Rivas. The Coast News graphic
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USK coaches, athletes hit restart button after school pulls plug

SAN MARCOS — On a Thursday evening in late April, the University of Saint Katherine men’s basketball team gathered at the USK Sports Complex on Los Vallecitos Boulevard for a fourth straight night of open runs.

In the middle of a pickup game, an injured player watching from the sideline raised his voice to get the court’s attention.

“Ayo, come here,” he said in an elevated tone, bringing awareness to the phone in his hand.

“This energy made us stop play,” said Jadon Amiot, a five-foot-seven redshirt guard in his first year at USK. “We immediately realized something was wrong.”

An email from the USK administration brought the gym to a halt.

“I started reading it, and it looked like one of those fake spam emails you get,” Amiot said. “It was so unreal. On top of that, we never get any emails from Frank [Papatheofanis, president and founder of USK].”

As explained in the email, the university, which opened in 2010, will close immediately and cease all operations because of financial instability, as reported by The Coast News. In a 4 p.m. notice of termination email to staff, Papatheofanis said the school would be “ceasing all employment” as it “can no longer meet its financial obligations because of a steep shortfall in operating cash” and is filing for bankruptcy.

The sense of shock permeating the gym broke when the team noticed head coach Kevin Williamson through a window.

“He was scratching his head, and we were making jokes because he really doesn’t have that much hair,” Amiot said with a laugh. “We were like, ‘Man, if he is touching his head, this must be real.’”

In the locker room, which was described as deafeningly silent, Williamson confirmed to the team the realness of the situation and that he, too, had been notified of his employment termination.

USK men's basketball coach Kevin Williamson confirmed to his team on April 25 that the university was closing due to financial instability. Courtesy photo/USK
Firebirds men’s hoops coach Kevin Williamson, above, confirmed the news of the university’s closure with his players during practice on April 25. Courtesy photo

At that same time, elsewhere in San Marcos, USK head baseball coach Cameron Johnson had just arrived home, intending to spend time with his wife and four children over a peaceful dinner.

Johnson ignored the first few calls coming into his cellphone.

But they didn’t stop.

‘Why is this kid calling me right now?’ Johnson wondered when he saw the number of Christos Tountas, an undergraduate assistant with the team.

“He was like, ‘Hey, did you get the email?’” Johnson remembered. “I pulled up the email on my phone and saw the community-wide announcement about the termination of the school – that’s how I found out.”

That evening, similar situations played out over and over for the nearly 300 students enrolled at USK and the faculty employed by the university.

“It’s an overwhelming situation,” sophomore Arion Neill, a catcher on the softball team, said. “It leaves a lot of us completely lost.”

In the weeks since, students — nearly all of whom were involved in the athletic program — have struggled with the feeling of being blindsided by the announcement and the daunting challenge of finding new teams at new schools for the upcoming fall semester on extremely short notice.

“This was the worst way the school could have gone about [telling us],” Neill said. “A mass email at a random time on a random Thursday before finals — this isn’t how I think it should have been handled.”

“I had the feel sorry for me mentality,” Amiot added. “I saw people breaking down; I saw people in denial; humor was a big one. The first three days, I couldn’t think straight, I didn’t have the same diction when I talked. Now, it’s acceptance. We are all athletes; we need to find somewhere else to play.”

Members of the Firebirds softball team were among the more than 300 students enrolled at the University of Sain Katherine to learn of the school's immediate closure via email. Courtesy photo/USK
Members of the Firebirds softball team were among the more than 300 students at the University of Saint Katherine to learn of the school’s immediate closure via email. Courtesy photo/USK

For Devin Padua, a graduating senior outfielder in his sixth year of college, this season would always be his final in cleats, but with his senior project scuttered after months of work, there is a sense of incompletion.

“Most of the seniors had a senior project that we had been working on for the whole year,” Padua said. “That was completely canceled, too. We did all this work and research just for it to be shut off.”

Padua, second on the baseball team in hits and batting average this past season, described his experience at USK as mostly positive, highlighting the small familial environment.

“I felt like everything was going smoothly,” he said. “It’s just shocking.”

Multiple USK students share that positive sentiment, but now, with the benefit of hindsight, some wonder if they missed red flags.

“This came as a surprise to literally everyone,” a member of the USK women’s basketball team told The Coast News on the condition of anonymity. “The email felt insincere and cowardly, and how much this would impact our lives wasn’t taken into account. The experience at USK was positive, but it was a sketchy process, as our bills and payments were all through Venmo, which isn’t typical. We got used to it, but we were taken aback by it.”

USK women's basketball player Kylani Rookstool during the Firebirds loss to Benedictine Mesa earlier this season. Courtesy photo/USK
Firebirds freshman Kylani Rookstool, a Cal Pac All-Conference honorable mention, is one of many former student-athletes at the University of Saint Katherine who will likely be searching for a new school. Courtesy photo/USK

According to Papatheofansis, in an email to The Coast News, the option to pay via Venmo was “added by student request.”

Still, there were other instances.

“It was really confusing figuring out how to pay,” Amiot said. “On top of that, I had a professor who didn’t show up for three weeks, didn’t email us and then came back on the last day of the semester, gave us a final and that counted towards our grades. How does a teacher not show up for weeks and then give us real grades?”

“I didn’t connect the dots until after, which sucks,” Neill said. “A few days before the school shut down, they said they would raise tuition, which felt odd. And for fundraising, the softball coach would only accept cash.”

With students scrambling to find new homes, the level of support from USK coaches and administrators for those transferring has varied from individual to individual.

“It’s been frustrating,” said Neill. “My coaches have reached out to certain people about finding connections, but I haven’t been reached out to – I’m on my own. It’s an isolating feeling and I know other teammates haven’t been reached out to as well.”

“The professors have been really accommodating about letters of recommendation,” added the women’s basketball player. “The coaches have all been reaching out day-and-night, asking, ‘Do you want to go here?’ I feel like I do have a very good support system.”

With the initial shock behind him, Amiot is now looking at the positives of his own situation.

“I’m the guy who weaseled his way into every level of basketball – high school varsity, junior college, USK,” Amiot said. “Coaches in California aren’t looking for anyone under six-foot. My former coach is now at South Dakota Wesleyan and he’s been in touch with me. Two other colleges also reached out. This might put me in a better position than I was in.”

Firebirds baseball coach Cameron Johnson learned of the University of Saint Katherine's closure and his immediate termination via email on April 25. Courtesy photo/USK
Firebirds baseball coach Cameron Johnson learned of the University of Saint Katherine’s closure and his immediate termination via email on April 25. Courtesy photo/USK

Johnson finally realized his lifelong dream of coaching college baseball last February after serving as a police officer in Texas for 10 years.

Losing the income that he relied on to support his large family has been stressful, but even with how his tenure at USK ended, he doesn’t regret taking the job.

“I still would have taken the leap of faith [knowing then what I know now],” Johnson said. “Now I’m able to put head college coach for two seasons on my resume and pursue other jobs.”

Johnson is optimistic about his future. He already has a summer coaching job lined up with an affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers in the Northwoods League, a college league in Wisconsin.

He understands the frustration students and faculty are feeling but doesn’t want the negativity to be the only memory the community carries from the school’s final run.

“I understand there is a sour taste,” Johnson said. “But there was so much positive with the 10 head coaches USK had. Every coach put in extra time and several of us put in our own money with our programs to try and give those kids a college experience the best we could. The faculty really put their heart and soul into that place for the kids.”

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