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What Will Happen To Sweet Briar College And Its Athletes?

Sweet Briar College students embrace on March 3, shortly after news broke that the school was shutting its doors this summer. Jill Nance/News & Daily Advance/AP Images

What do you do with an entire college? Specifically, what do you do with 3,000-plus acres of land, a new library, a 53,000-square foot athletic facility, one of the top equestrian centers in the nation and more than 500 students and 300 employees?

These are the questions that outsiders from Forbes, Inside Higher Ed, the Washington Post and NPR are asking following last week's announcement that Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Virginia, will close its doors, ending a run of 114 years.

Mark Cuban tweeted that "this is just the beginning of the college implosion" and #savesweetbriar is trending. Many of the questions revolve around Sweet Briar's endowment (reports range from $80 million to almost $100 million): Where will the endowment go when the school shuts down? And what happens with all of the buildings and land that makes up the campus?

But aside from the growing media coverage and physical assets that remain on campus, it is the coaches and student athletes that I wonder about.

For five years, I worked as the head lacrosse coach, and as the Senior Woman Administrator at Sweet Briar College. I went there in 2006, seduced by the rolling hills and the sense that they were as interested in me as I was in joining their athletics department.

And in interviews with multiple athletes and administrators since the shutdown was announced, it became clear that I wasn't the only one feeling at a loss. (To hear from them, click here.)

Sweet Briar is a unique college, one that champions philanthropy and stewardship among its students. With traditions that have remained true from one graduating class to another, it is most commonly referred by those that have experienced it as a special place. Campus residents smile when they think about the fact that each person could essentially have their own private four acres of land to enjoy. If we only consider the students, then they would each have 60. With four athletic fields, a natural 5K loop, 15 miles of mountain biking trails and tennis courts numbering in the double digits, visiting teams intent on stepping quickly onto the fields would stop, taking a moment to admire the campus' undeniable beauty.

It was mid-July when I flew into Richmond International Airport and drove two hours south on Route 29. I pulled over in Amherst, Virginia, to the Apple Bin gas station where I changed into my pink shirt and business suit -- school colors are pink and green. I should have rethought that outfit. Anyone who has been to Virginia knows that July offers a special kind of hot. Thankfully, my blazer was thick enough to camouflage the sweat dripping down my back as soon as I left my air conditioned rental car.

It became clear after my first few conversations that the staff was as enchanting as the campus. The commitment that everyone from admissions counselors to the groundskeepers demonstrate on a daily basis is tangible and incomparably welcoming. During my first month on the job, I cooked five meals for myself. Every other meal that August was a dinner with a fellow coach, breakfast with the dean of students, a well-timed beer with the vice president of development -- countless interactions that reinstilled why Sweet Briar is so distinct.

I had come there intent on building upon past success to make a nationally competitive lacrosse team. Cara Gascoigne started club lacrosse at Sweet Briar in 1914, and in 1956, the college played the first women's intercollegiate lacrosse game in the country against William & Mary. In the 1980s, Sweet Briar enjoyed significant success in swimming, lacrosse, hockey, riding and tennis. The lacrosse team was nationally ranked, undefeated in the ODAC (Old Dominion Athletic Conference) in 1985, and one player, Mary Blair Farinholt, was a four-year All-America selection.

Overconfident that I could get athletes, using the beauty of the campus as a tool, I soon realized it was tougher to recruit than I had thought. It became clear to me during my recruiting phone calls that the statistics were correct. Only about 2 percent of high school girls are actually interested in considering an all-women's college or university. I was working to convince the other 98 percent.

I was fortunate to work with some incredible individuals, as any coach can probably say. I remember our first team meeting. I had inherited a team of 12. When I had everyone in the room, I counted twice, hoping that I had missed someone. For those unfamiliar with lacrosse, you field 12 at a time. I started my on-campus recruiting efforts, borrowing soccer players who were willing to start from the ground up, learning to catch and throw. I convinced some of our field hockey players that lacrosse was a logical choice for their spring semester; that it could keep them in shape and that, in between the sprints, we would have fun.

We lost a lot of games. Competing against Washington and Lee, a perennial powerhouse, and other larger coed institutions, we celebrated the wins and consistently worked hard to be the fittest team on the field. If we couldn't beat them with our skills, we would at least be able to outrun them. Seeing many of my former students take up CrossFit now, I believe that they crush those WODs because of the varied training they endured during practices each day. Their determination spilled over into their classrooms and now their careers.

During my five years, there were conversations at the conference level as to whether we belonged in the ODAC. Sweet Briar was more competitive in its individual sports than in team competitions. Considering the funding that was provided to the athletics department, I am sure that some questioned the value of the expense.

The value is something that cannot be quantified, and the loss of women's sport programs is going to be felt first and foremost by these 75 students in central Virginia.

But the shutdown of women's programs is more example of the larger issue at hand. How are colleges and universities growing female leaders while they cut programs due to financial constraints? Will these 70-plus athletes of Sweet Briar be able to continue their athletic careers when transferring to institutions that may or may not have a spot on the team for them? If they cannot continue to compete on an athletic team, will there be something else that challenges them as much as the last two minutes of a game when they are down by a point? Can a classroom setting create the same camaraderie found during a six hour round trip bus ride to an away game? Will these athletes have the opportunity to lead a group of peers through wins and losses, injuries, recoveries, the poor calls by an official or the glee of knowing that you got away with it, if only for that one game?

As unbiased as I attempt to be, I am not entirely confident that that will be the case. Because of its size, Sweet Briar afforded me the opportunity to wear multiple hats. I was the head lacrosse coach and a senior administrator, heading up our fundraising efforts, organizing the spring golf fundraiser and, once upon a time, putting together the athletics banquet video late into the morning -- 34 hours of editing for 22 minutes of video. I was given free rein to teach whatever classes I felt I could fit into my schedule. This ran the gamut from spinning to the History of Women in Sport and Culture (a personal favorite). This was the same approach that we presented to our students -- you have every opportunity to accomplish whatever you want, take action and we will support you.

The closing of Sweet Briar will remove six coaching opportunities and four athletic administrative positions. At the Division 3 level, only 29 percent of athletic director positions are held by women. The number declines as you look at Division I and Division II schools. The percentage of women coaching collegiate females is below 50 percent.

While not many people knew of Sweet Briar, I always felt that we had the best coaching staff, comparable to any institution no matter the division or the size. And while the win column may not have always reflected that, the experiences, relationships and impact that students made during and after graduation always cemented that belief.

The athletes of Sweet Briar have gone on to impact everything around them, not just their worlds, but the world.

Cat Cox took her biology degree and created Spider Hall Farm, a 362-acre working tobacco, corn and grain farm. The Agriculture Education Center was established to teach the past, present, and future of agriculture and how to sustain the land, water, and yourself to become a steward of the land.

Meredith Newman started her collegiate coaching career at Kenyon College. She is now at the helm of Augustana's lacrosse program, leading a 31-woman team.

Many have become teachers, coaches, leaders in their companies, entrepreneurs, lawyers, scientists. In fact, there is not one industry I can think of that goes untouched by a Sweet Briar athlete. That includes the beer brewing industry, a traditionally male-dominated field.

Sweet Briar is a special place, considered home by everyone that spent any amount of time there, whether it was for a four-year degree or a career. So many alumnae have eloquently shared their stories.

Rebecca Christian, former field hockey player and team captain, summarized her experience: "The environment at Sweet Briar instilled that confidence in you, making you think, 'Why not me?' And now, I'm the one to stand up; I'm the one to speak out. I'm in graduate school now and I am the only one raising my hand. Sweet Briar makes you do that. Those lessons definitely stay with you."

Hillary London spent five years as a college coach and administrator at Sweet Briar before joining ESPN, where she works as an associate manager of production operations.