With back-to-back state singles titles under his belt, Ironwood Ridge grad John Nanosky never thought he’d have trouble finding a collegiate tennis squad to play for.
The cold winter weather of Minnesota nipped Nanosky’s ambitions of Midwestern academia, though. So he returned to the sunblock life, at Arizona State University.
As the competitive Sun Devils team headed toward an NCAA tournament berth this year, Nanosky happily labored between the No. 6 and 7 singles slots, and played No. 3 doubles.
“I was extremely happy. I thought everything was amazing,” Nanosky said. “I learned a lot from the coaches, and I never had so much fun in my life.”
But after a first-round tourney loss to Duke, worse news awaited back in Tempe. A teammate phoned Nanosky last Tuesday morning and told the Oro Valley native to check his e-mail.
There, on his monitor, flickered his walking papers. The school’s athletic department cut three men’s teams — wrestling, swimming and tennis — in an effort to trim $1.1 million from its athletic budget.
“As a team, it was almost like we were all brothers, everything was good, and then all of a sudden this happened,” Nanosky said. “Now people are going to have to go their own way.”
The decision, officially announced by ASU Athletic Director Lisa Love later that afternoon, left 70 Olympic-sport athletes without a squad.
Nanosky and the others were offered their scholarship benefits until graduation, or they could transfer to another program, redshirt-free.
The business major decided to chuck the maroon and gold, attend his third college, and become a Wildcat — offering a verbal commitment late last week.
“There were some odd emotions, but at the same time, you’re happy about doing it,” Nanosky said of switching to the rival school.
Per NCAA regulations, Arizona tennis coach Tad Berkowitz declined comment until Nanosky signs. But the racqueteer’s former head coach, Lou Belken, felt the deal offers the Wildcats a bargain.
“If I were UA, I would be extremely excited about getting John,” Belken said. “He did a tremendous job for us, and was probably the sleeper of our team.”
Belken, a 26-year Sun Devil coaching veteran, is one of several coaches to whom the university handed termination notices. A devotee of the positive mindset, he’s not worried about his future — though at age 57, the situation does bring him to a crossroads.
The coach will continue his standard summer fare, escaping the heat and running his Wisconsin club team. And while he brings it up, he’s not going to focus on the situation’s southbound irony.
“That’s the strange part,” Belken said. “Suddenly the Sun Devils become ’Cats. Personally, I’m going to root for wherever my guys are.”
Nanosky’s not the only former Nighthawk affected by cuts at ASU, which boasts the nation’s third-largest enrollment and a $41.5 million athletic budget.
Brian Anderson swam the 50- and 100-yard sprints for the Sun Devils, whose squad ended its season ranked 19th nationally. The college sophomore — swimming since age 3 — placed fourth during the 2006 prep state finals for Ironwood Ridge.
But last week’s news may have spelled the end of his competitive career.
“We’ve either got to find a new place to go and realize our dreams somewhere else, or face reality and say ‘I retired two years early,’” Anderson said.
Like the rest of the ill-fated squads, ASU’s men’s swimming team was offered the chance to start an endowment with outside funding to resuscitate its program.
Even if their teams were able to raise the requisite $5 million — which Belken and both Ironwood Ridge jocks described as impossible on such short notice — Anderson said recruiting would be irreparably damaged.
The teams would start from scratch, he said. But since Anderson attends ASU on an academic scholarship, he’s not going anywhere, regardless.
Arizona State’s administration was quick to voice its pain over gutting the programs. ASU spokesman Mark Brand said the cuts were necessary after a decade of “operating 22 sports basically with mirrors.”
“This was a horrible decision for us. It was painful, and one that we didn’t want to make,” Brand said. “But it’s a reality of our economic times. It’s tough all over right now.”
The move drops the Sun Devils’ number of programs from 22 to 20. Men’s diving — with its two divers and one coach — will stay aboard. To ensure Title IX compliance, all cuts came from the men’s side, Brand said.
"Potential competitive success” also counted among ASU’s criteria for the cuts, infuriating members of the tennis team — which would have returned its Nos. 1, 2 and 4 players — from Coach Belken down to Nanosky’s mother, who had a few choice words for Love.
UA Athletic Director Jim Livengood offered sympathy toward all involved in Tempe’s stew, but said that athletes like Nanosky wouldn’t find the same problems in Tucson.
“Budgets are tougher every day. That part of it, I don’t see changing,” Livengood said. “Thus far, we’ve been able to keep our head above water. And we work on it every day, all day.”