Jillian Lates will never forget her first visit to Radford University. It was this time of year, bitter cold, but everything about the place exuded warmth.
The cozy campus, welcoming students, encouraging academic staff and, most important, the venerable field hockey coach, Jeff Woods. Even the weather charmed.
"Everything was frosted over," Lates said, "and it completely looked like a winter wonderland, and I was just awed by it."
A graduate of Kecoughtan High, Lates became a Highlander, and her affection for Radford has only deepened since. But last week, without warning, the school cut field hockey, women's swimming and men's track from its varsity sports program, crushing Lates and scores of others.
The field hockey purge was particularly hard on Hampton Roads. Radford's coach for 28 years, Woods has long recruited here, and this past season's 18-player roster included 12 from our region.
"A lot of us have put 10-plus years into training to hit the dream of being a Division I athlete," said Lates, a sophomore goalkeeper, "and it sucks, honestly. … The satisfaction that you're good enough to be a D-I athlete is overwhelming."
"I've been playing field hockey since third grade," said Paige Doughty, a junior midfielder from Kecoughtan and aspiring occupational therapist, "and it's always been my dream to go to college and play. … Everything fit so well (here), and just to have that taken out from underneath you so randomly just is heartbreaking."
The heartbreak hit a week ago Tuesday. Acting on athletic director Robert Lineburg's recommendation, Radford's Board of Visitors approved the cuts, after which Lineburg informed athletes and coaches.
The sadness, anger and frustration in the room were palpable.
"Everyone was like, how could they do this?" Doughty said. "Everyone was crying. … They gave us a pamphlet and said, 'If you want to transfer, here you go.' And that was basically it."
Likes most such cuts, Radford's were rooted in money.
"It became very clear that we were spread very thin with our resources," Lineburg told the Roanoke Times.
Conference affiliation also compromised field hockey. Radford competes primarily in the Big South, which does not sponsor the sport, forcing Woods' program into the NorPac, a contrived grouping that includes, among others, Liberty and Longwood in the East, Cal-Berkeley and Cal-Davis in the West.
That partially explains why, despite the cuts, Radford is adding women's lacrosse, a Big South sport.
As someone who's never set foot on campus, I'm in no position to judge Radford's decision. But there's no denying the fiscal challenges faced by college athletic departments everywhere, from nationally ambitious Virginia and Virginia Tech to modest Radford.
Such bottom-line realities are of no solace to those who invested so much, physically and emotionally, in the affected programs.
"I don't think anyone's gone a day without crying," Doughty said.
"The team has been together the whole week," said freshman forward Morgan Ames from Tabb High, "and we have hung out to try and manage through it."
Program alumni also were blindsided.
"I just was really saddened," said Hampton Roads Academy assistant coach Lauren Scott, who played at Radford from 2003-06. "The field hockey program there had such a positive impact on my life. It's unfortunate that other players and girls from our area won't get to experience that. …
"(Coach Woods) had such a great impact on my life, kind of inspired me to want to coach and want to be that role model for girls in our area."
Naturally, petitions are circulating to save the programs, but the athletes realize they're fighting a losing battle, that the 2013 season was the last for Radford field hockey, which won three Eastern Division titles in 14 NorPac seasons.
There is, however, one final chance for these women to compete together. Though field hockey is a fall sport, offseason tournaments dot the winter and spring calendar, and the Highlanders have every intention of playing as scheduled this weekend in Pennsylvania against the likes of Maryland, Albany and Fairfield.
In fact, less than 24 hours before learning their program had been cut, many of Radford's players were training for this tournament. The school is paying for the event, just as it's honoring the athletes' partial scholarships.
"I couldn't honestly have asked for a better three years," Doughty said. "I was blessed with the best team. We're like a family. We're always there for each other. Our coach is always there for us. … He's like a fatherly figure to us."
As a junior, Doughty is unlikely to find a team willing to accept a transfer for one year. But underclassmen such as Lates and Ames must soon decide whether to pursue hockey elsewhere.
(And don't forget the high school seniors who had committed to Radford and planned to sign letters of intent last Wednesday, one day after the purging.)
"I'm still really undecided," Ames said, "because I have all my friends here. They make me want to stay, but at the same time, I'm not ready to give up hockey."
Ames' nursing studies complicate her decision. Few schools can match the academics-athletics combination Radford offered her.
"We're all confused on what we want to do," Lates said. "We love it here. Radford's really our home, the friends we've made are just amazing."
Lates is exploring options at Division III Roanoke College, a short drive up Interstate 81 from Radford, and Division I Sacred Heart in Connecticut.
"I know a lot of girls are looking," she said, "but we're all still torn between the sport we love and the school we love."