Courtney Deck had everything figured out with her senior year of high school coming to an end.
The Heritage softball standout had committed to play at Hiwassee College in Madisonville. She planned to study nursing or dental hygiene — a program only offered by a handful of colleges in Tennessee. Her best friend and teammate, Kaelee Franklin, was planning to join her on the softball team at Hiwassee.
The future looked bright — that is until Franklin heard a rumor last spring that the school was closing its doors.
“She was freaking out, so I texted Coach (Ethan Carroll) and he was like, ‘Yeah, we’re closing. I just found out about an hour ago,’” Deck said. “I was heartbroken. I thought that was my school.”
The news broke on March 28 when the school issued a press release stating the Board of Trustees voted to close the small Methodist institution at the end of the spring semester, May 10, citing financial issues. Deck and Franklin found out that night just before their game against Lenoir City. Their softball days instantly felt numbered.
Deck and Franklin were among half a dozen Blount County athletes sent scrambling to find a backup plan.
“I was like, ‘It’s so late in the season, not a lot of schools are going to have openings for players anymore because they try to fill up their rosters before graduation,’” Deck said. “So I was like, ‘Well, I guess I’m not going to get to play ball.’ I was crushed.”
A former softball player at Alcoa, Ansley Williams began attending Hiwassee in 2017. Like Deck, she received a softball scholarship and chose to major in dental hygiene — both key factors in her selection of the school. Another pro was that the campus was less than an hour away from home, and its small size offered an intimate vibe.
“It just seemed like the most logical option for me, especially considering I also got to play softball,” Williams said. “People have always told me throughout my softball career to play every game like it’s your last because you never know when your last game could be.”
That advice never felt more relevant to Williams than when she and her team found out about their school’s closing in between games of a doubleheader. She said they suspected something was off when the athletic director pulled Carroll from the dugout in the middle of the first game. Afterward, Carroll gathered his players in left field to break the news.
It was a surreal moment that only began sinking in for Williams when she checked her phone. On it was an onslaught of text messages and missed calls. She needed a plan. She also had another game to play that evening.
“When we got that information, everybody’s first thought was, ‘What’s my next step?’” Williams said. “I thought my career was going to be over. It was really shocking, crazy, emotional — all those things.”
An Alcoa native a former volleyball player for Hiwassee, Nicole Fritz learned of the school’s closing when a curious message popped up in her volleyball team’s group chat.
“One of my friends was like, ‘I love you, sorry we don’t get to play together next year,’” Fritz said. “I was like, ‘Oh, is she leaving?’”
Fritz then opened the thread and got the news, which she said broke across the campus word of mouth. Even her volleyball coach was unaware what was happening as players began reaching out to him for answers.
“They didn’t really do it in the correct way, in my opinion,” Fritz said of the school’s approach to informing students and faculty. “‘Did that really happen?’ Then once it hit, I was like, ‘OK, well I can’t sit around and sulk about it.’
“They didn’t give me enough time to do that.”
Founded in 1849, Hiwassee is affiliated with the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church. The school offered associate and four-year degrees and had 225 students enrolled. It cited that dwindling number as among the reasons behind its closing after 170 years.
Tuition for full-time freshmen at Hiwassee was $18,484 for the fall 2018 semester, according to the school's website.
“Growing marketplace trends including substantially discounted or highly subsidized public education, changes in demographics, our rural location, and declining enrollment have combined to produce an unsustainable economic model,” Hiwassee said in its press release.
The spring semester was almost over when the decision was made. Application deadlines for other colleges had passed, and rosters had been filled. Complications in regard to credit transfers and financial aid made figuring out a new plan a tedious affair for students.
Fritz and Deck were among the fortunate ones. They secured athletic scholarships elsewhere. Deck signed with Tennessee-Martin, and Fritz will play volleyball for Tennessee Wesleyan.
Williams and Franklin plan to attend other schools as well — Williams to Tennessee Wesleyan and Franklin to Pellissippi State Community College. However, their athletic careers are over.
“All my life, I’ve loved having the title of being a student athlete because I take a lot of pride in being able to balance school and athletics at the same time,” said Williams, who picked Tennessee Wesleyan because it acquired Hiwassee's dental hygiene program.
“It was really disappointing. It’s one of those things that helps you be involved on campus. I have to roll with the punches and just focus on my future and stuff.”
Haley Worrick — a former William Blount soccer player — played for Hiwassee as a freshman last season. She has also been accepted to Tennessee Wesleyan and is planning to try out for the soccer team in August.
Worrick will receive an athletic scholarship if she makes the cut, but some of her former teammates who rely on that financial aid were not so lucky.
“They didn’t have enough money and scholarships to be able to transfer to another school,” Worrick said. “Some of them just didn’t go anymore.”
Left in the dark
The school’s handling of the situation left many feeling hungry for answers. Protests broke out following the decision.
Fritz said she wants to know more about the school’s allocation of funds, especially considering many of its facilities — such as its gymnasium — needed upgrades. She lived on the third floor of a dorm that didn’t have an elevator, and she said many of the showers in the girls’ bathrooms didn’t work.
“The ones that did were covered in mold,” Fritz said. “The dorms there were awful — run down.”
Fritz also pointed to questionable purchases made by the school, such as Smart Cars with customized wraps to look like tiger cubs after its mascot. Officials in the admissions and advancement departments drove the vehicles on college business with the intent of drawing attention and saving on gas.
Fritz recently visited the campus. She described it as a ghost town, littered with miniature tiger-striped cars.
“You wasted all this money on these little cars that are just sitting there,” Fritz said. “It just always went back to the money issue. If it was a money issue, where did all the money go?”
Williams said she also feels left in the dark. It’s a frustrating place to be given her athletic career wasn’t the only chapter that came to an abrupt close. Friendships were severed as well.
“It’s crazy to think we went there and we don’t know anything more than anybody else does,” Williams said. “Having to leave your friends that you see and hang out with every single day — we just felt a lot of emotion, especially the last game of the season. We wanted to win, obviously, but we just went out there and had fun because we knew that was going to be our last time playing together.
“It was our last time playing for our school.”