Tennis players Odyr Cruz and Gabriel Guell Bernardi thought it was a joke. On March 2, they and hundreds of other St. Cloud State athletes received an e-mail telling them to attend an 8 a.m. gathering in a campus auditorium.

Bernardi had been at the school for about two months, coming from Sao Paulo, Brazil, for the chance to play tennis at an American university.

Cruz also arrived in January, from Salvador, Brazil. He wanted to start school in the fall, but there were problems with his I-20 paperwork and student visa.

In the auditorium, St. Cloud State President Earl H. Potter III and athletic director Heather Weems stood on stage to deliver the news. In the wake of a $9 million budget deficit, the school was eliminating six athletic programs — men’s and women tennis, women’s Nordic skiing, men’s indoor and outdoor track and field and men’s cross-country. It also mandated roster reductions for four more men’s sports, including its two-time defending national champion Division II wrestling program.

“I thought it was a prank or something,” Bernardi said.

Cruz didn’t go to the meeting. When his teammates told him what happened, Cruz said, “Stop. You guys are joking.”

St. Cloud State estimates the cuts will save the athletic department $250,000, or about 5 percent of the school’s general athletic fund allocation.

“It pains me deeply to cut these sports,” Potter said. “I fought hard against it for a number of years. … I hate it. It’s awful.”

The collateral damage affects the lives of 80 student-athletes. No program feels the impact like the men’s tennis team, where nine of the 11 players listed on the roster are from other countries.

The university has said it will honor all athletic scholarships for up to four years, but tennis scholarships are generally small to begin with. If students such as Cruz and Bernardi want to remain college athletes, they have to transfer.

“I feel bad for all these guys who have come all this way,” said Jacob Cersosimo, a freshman tennis player from Mitchell, S.D. “They came to live the American dream, traveled thousands of miles to have someone tell them they don’t care about them.”

Harsh reality

Longtime men’s and women’s head tennis coach Jerry Anderson had been back at work for only a few days after recovering from open heart surgery when the cuts came down. There had been a previous coaches meeting in January in which Weems told coaches such a decision might be coming, but the move blindsided many athletes.

After the announcement, St. Cloud State immediately granted written permission for other schools to contact athletes about transfer opportunities.

Cruz is among the lucky ones. He said he already is hearing from three other schools and expects to make a decision soon.

Bernardi isn’t so sure. He is working with a representative in Brazil, but he hasn’t heard from any colleges yet.

If he doesn’t find a suitable destination, he figures he will go back to Brazil and work with his father’s company — this after finally becoming acclimated to eating dinner at 6 p.m. instead of 9, speaking English instead of Portuguese and, of course, learning to bear the Minnesota weather.

Now what?

Cersosimo came to St. Cloud State from South Dakota in August. He said he plans to stay at the school and become a regular student. He has other interests outside of tennis. He already had signed an apartment lease for next year with two friends.

But he said he still feels wronged.

“About 75 percent of our team is not from the United States,” he said. “What are they going to do? I live five hours away. I thought that was bad. They have to take a plane longer than five hours [to get home].”

St. Cloud State developed an international pipeline of players despite getting no funding for recruiting. In 2009, a player named Joao Orsi showed up on campus to play. He made the team, became a starter and began spreading the word to friends back home.

The Brazilian influx never stopped.

Joao Souto, from Londrina, Brazil, is a junior and says he will stay at St.  Cloud State. He said he doesn’t want to give up tennis, but transferring would hurt him too much academically.

Lucas Norbiato, also from Londrina, is a sophomore and plans to transfer. He is trying to contact friends at other programs and balancing his search for a summer internship with his search for a new school.

Pau Martin Sole, a sophomore from Barcelona, said he feels as if he has no choice but to stay on campus and finish his degree. That means giving up college tennis, the reason he came to St. Cloud in the first place.

“It’s a very long process to get here,” Sole said. “You have to pass exams, show we’re qualified with the right level of English, the right level of math. We have to get our visas set up, talk to agencies, talk to universities and get accepted somewhere.

“Now? It’s like a kick in the ass.”

Tough decisions

St. Cloud State’s enrollment has dropped from 18,650 students in 2010 to 15,461. Budget problems in the state university system, which resulted in SCSU considering canceling its football program in 2010, have only persisted.

The faculty union for Minnesota’s seven state universities recently voted to ask the university system for Potter’s removal, though officials of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities have said they do not plan to take action.

For years, Potter said he resisted the idea of cutting athletics. Potter played football at Williams College and said he understands what sports mean to a university.

But this time, Potter said, he had no choice. St. Cloud State’s athletic portfolio has long been overextended, he said, and he doesn’t expect more funding. If the school were to sustain the model, it would have to spend a fixed amount of money on the school’s 23 athletic programs.

Coaches and boosters have presented all sorts of questions. One of the most pressing: Will this actually save the school money?

Cutting the roster sports of 80 student-athletes means losing the guaranteed annual tuition dollars from them. Potter said it only makes sense when considering the complexity of a university budget.

“We will lose students and revenues, but we’re adding new students in other areas, in new program areas, and we’re reducing the cost structure in athletics,” Potter said. “We will end up with a balanced budget and a lower-cost athletics program. That’s what we needed to achieve.”

There’s also lingering outrage over the meeting, when coaches were called into the auditorium only a few minutes before their athletes. St. Cloud State players said it “lacked compassion,” it was “unprofessional,” it was “ruthless.”

Weems said there was no good way to make such an announcement to her athletic department. She said if anything, she would have wanted the talk with coaches to last 30 or 45 minutes.

“It was important to me that they didn’t see us as hiding behind something, that tough decisions had to be made, and we were going to own those,” Weems said.

No winners

Questions linger among the affected St. Cloud State players. Couldn’t administrators have told coaches further in advance? Couldn’t they have given the teams a chance to do fundraising? Couldn’t they have announced the programs would be canceled two years from now?

“To see the administration not even care is kind of embarrassing and kind of disappointing,” Cersosimo said.

Despite on-campus petitions and meetings, the athletic cuts remain scheduled to take effect at the end of this school year. The other roster reductions were implemented to comply with Title IX after cuts to the women’s programs.

The women’s tennis team is filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights regarding the Title IX implications. Five of the six underclassmen on the team also filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in late April, alleging fewer athletic opportunities for women than men over the past 12 years, and naming St. Cloud State and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system as defendants.

The legal proceedings are part of the reason Anderson and assistant men’s and women’s tennis coach Larry Sundby were hesitant to address the situation, and what’s next with their teams, in detail.

“It’s hard to have that conversation until you have full closure and until you know there isn’t another alternative,” Sundby said.

But especially for the men’s programs, the outlook is bleak.

“None of these students deserve this,” Potter said. “It’s not fair. It’s not even right.”