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Twisted fate for broken Arrows

Tornado levels Ursuline's athletics center but raises support from surrounding community and schools

Champion Digital | By Brian Burnsed

The storm had finished its work, but the rain lingered.

They stood there, the three of them, motionless in the morning drizzle, sentries amid the swirl of first responders, and gazed at the rubble. Ursuline President Diana Stano, Athletics Director Cindy McKnight and Kevin Gladstone, vice president for institutional advancement, stared at the innards of their gym, its iron rims and wood floor exposed to the elements after being gutted overnight by a tornado. McKnight’s tears mixed with the raindrops. 

A celebration had been on the horizon before the skies darkened. On July 12, only eight days before the tornado carved through campus and turned half of the school’s basketball gym into a pile of debris, Ursuline had been accepted into Division II after a three-year transitional period. So rather than gather at the O’Brien Athletic Center outside Cleveland and take a moment to revel in their new NCAA membership, students and administrators spent a September afternoon raising funds in hopes of repairing or replacing the broken facility.“It was devastating,” Gladstone said. “It was like a dream.”

In the meantime, athletics staffers have scrambled to cobble together practice and workout time elsewhere. Two other NCAA schools – John Carroll and Case Western Reserve – have stepped in to lend their facilities. Despite the daily logistical hurdles coaches and administrators must now surmount, their spirits remain unbroken.

“We can rise above this,” Stano said. “Facilities are important, but they’re not what make you successful. It’s the people.”

Those people have been hard at work in the months since the tornado, which uprooted more than 100 trees across campus, sent debris flying more than two miles and made a 1,300-pound support beam vanish. At the center of that work is McKnight, who helped Ursuline launch its athletics program in 1999 and became the school’s de facto crisis coordinator after the storm. With the gym, pool, weight room and athletic training room all unusable, each of the 11 sports at the women’s college has been affected. Any requests from coaches, large or small, go through McKnight, who must negotiate with the college’s insurance company to fill needs that range from leasing vans for transporting players to practice to ensuring that visiting teams have a temporary facility where they can shower and change.

Every day, McKnight is faced with crises she never dreamed she’d handle. Once, she learned that the water tank outside the trailer that replaced the damaged athletic training room was full of undrinkable water; that water was supposed to be used to make ice for coolers holding student-athletes’ drinks. She determined the ice would have to be placed into bags before going into coolers. She also had to rush to tell a contractor to stop building a ramp into that same trailer — it was protruding into the street and clogging traffic on campus. And she’s had to haggle with the electric company to get enough power to the athletic staff’s new temporary offices, also in a trailer. Initially, either the computers or the air conditioning worked, never both.

“I haven’t really done my regular job in the past five weeks,” McKnight said in late August. “It’s just coordinating. Where is everybody going to practice? Where can we go? How do I get there?”

Ursuline’s coaches can empathize. In the months before their new temporary trailer facility was ready, many worked out of a cramped science classroom, where nine computers shared space with countless boxes of athletic equipment and office supplies salvaged from the wreckage.

Other coaches were displaced to dorm rooms on campus, where they stacked belongings on thin navy mattresses beside their desks and dresser drawers doubled as filing cabinets. Ursuline volleyball coach Donna Day’s dorm room was lit by a lamp without a shade – it had been lost somewhere in the chaos. She laughed at the lonely bulb; it was her constant reminder that normalcy had been swept off by the wind.

But Ursuline has drawn lots of support. Immediately after the storm, McKnight received a flood of phone calls from local schools and organizations offering assistance. The Mandel Jewish Community Center of Cleveland has provided use of its weight room and basketball gym, where a college-length three-point line must be taped on the court before Ursuline’s practices. Hathaway Brown, a local girls prep school, is letting the volleyball team practice and play in its facilities. 

And they’ll find that schedules on both ends of these arrangements are in constant flux. Gretchen Weitbrecht, John Carroll’s associate athletics director, can trade as many as 10 emails a day with Ursuline basketball coach Shannon Sword as they work to lock down a time for a single practice.Case Western Reserve is lending its gym for two of Ursuline’s home basketball games, and John Carroll, 15 minutes west of Ursuline, has found time for the Arrows to practice several times and play 10 home games. While basketball, volleyball and swimming bear the greatest burden, every sport will be affected. Just east of Cleveland, Ursuline is blanketed by snow in winter, so spring sports like lacrosse and softball often move indoors for workouts and practices. They too will have to work with local schools and community centers.

“Even though I say our facilities are packed to the hilt, I think we’ve found that we can do a little more,” Weitbrecht said.

Ursuline student-athletes have no choice but to take the changes in stride. For some, practice facilities – most of which are 10-20 minutes away from campus – change almost daily, which tacks on nearly an hour of commuting to their already busy schedules. And sneaking in extra jump shots or workouts isn’t as easy as before. Ursuline senior Lauren Sharnsky, a member of the swim and volleyball teams, now has to block off about four-and-a-half hours of her day to account for her trip to and from practice. She misses the building she called home for three years.

“It stinks,” Sharnsky said, eyes watering. “I’m a senior, so this is my last year to play sports on a high level. I get emotional about it because a lot of blood, sweat and tears have gone into that gym.”

But more than one person on campus has called the storm a blessing in disguise. The basketball team, for instance, will have a chance to play its Jan. 22 home game in downtown Cleveland at Quicken Loans Arena, only hours before the Cavaliers host the Chicago Bulls. And administrators unanimously agree that the school needed a new facility. The one that sits in ruin was small and outdated, having been built in 1973 to accommodate intramural competition. Though they’ve been displaced this year, and possibly next, student-athletes are excited that the tornado will ultimately bring a gym worthy of their jump to Division II.

“I’m going to be honest,” junior basketball player Brianna Woods chuckled. “As soon as everybody said nobody got hurt, I thought, ‘Yes! Finally … a new gym.’ It’s overdue.”

Because the gym was 40 years old, Ursuline officials estimate the insurance money they’ll be given will cover only a fraction of the cost of building a modern facility. But Stano is committed to doing just that, even if it means making up a roughly seven-figure gap between the insurance payout and the cost of a new building. The school has already raised more than $240,000.

“I was always hoping I could be a part of building a new building,” McKnight said through a half-smile. “I just didn’t think it was going to happen like this.” 


This feature originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of NCAA Champion Magazine.