The Fredonia women’s tennis team was ousted in the quarterfinal of SUNYAC play to SUNY Cortland at the start of the month. This was an unexpected early finish to what was otherwise a wildly successful year for the Blue Devils.
However, missing from the team as they took the court for the quarterfinal in Binghamton was a key cog in the team’s rotation: freshman Sarah Bunk.
Bunk was en route to a historic season for the Blue Devils. Her 10-0 start to the season in singles competition tied her with teammate Anna Chiacchia for the most wins of all-time in a season for Fredonia. Opportunities to advance in SUNYAC competition could have supplied Bunk with her 11th and 12th wins on the year, surpassing the previous school record.
Instead, Bunk remained home during the weekend of Oct. 14-15 because of a conflict with her other passion and her major: music.
Bunk is a music education major and juggles her love for music and tennis in the Fall. Her participation in the school’s music program and on an athletic team is an incredibly rare combination. Of all student athletes currently listed on Fredonia’s athletic website, Bunk is one of only six that also commits time to the school of music. Her participation in Fredonia’s orchestras and ensembles is with her primary instrument: the viola.
As a result of this commitment to music, Bunk was obligated to participate in the 60th Anniversary Hillman Opera Celebration Concert, which was staged on Oct. 20 — five days after the completion of the SUNYAC tournament.
Although granted an excused absence from rehearsals by conductor David Rudge, Bunk faced a difficult decision. She could either participate in full in her athletics, or she could participate in full in the orchestra the following week.
“I was asked to excuse her for her tournament, which I did,” said Rudge. “However, I told her that if she was unable to attend these rehearsals, she wouldn’t be able to play as much in the Opera. She would play in the Opera, but not be able to play as much.”
Rudge further explained the importance of these rehearsals.
“This is a really important show for all of us, make no mistake,” he said. “Her being away that weekend would have caused her to miss out on six hours of rehearsals. I took the same approach that a coach would take with practice time in any sport. If you miss valuable practice time, there’s a chance that you will miss playing time in the game.”
For Bunk, the decision was a tough one that highlighted the sacrifices that come along with majoring in something as intensive as music while also committing time to a sport.
“I know he wasn’t targeting me personally, as an athlete,” said Bunk. “It was just a bad situation, and I didn’t like that I had to choose between participating in one fully over the other.”
As an NCAA division-III school, Fredonia’s student athlete handbook does require course professors to grant athletes excused absences to participate in sporting events.
The policy reads as “when a student is directly participating in a university-sponsored program that takes him/her away from classes (e.g., athletics or research conference), the department sponsoring the program will provide the student with documentation . . . Such participation will be considered a valid reason for missing the work.”
Although the policy is highlighted and seems to excuse student-athletes from conflicting classes based on athletic events, the ultimate decision as to whether or not a student can be excused from any given course comes down to the professor, as explained by Eileen Lyon.
“It is supposed to be an excused absence, but ultimately it is the professor’s decision,” said Lyon, who serves as Fredonia’s Faculty Athletics Representative. “This is a case where the student was excused from her academics, but that excused absence was not without retribution. That is at the discretion of the professor.”
Thus, the decision made by Rudge to excuse Bunk to play in SUNYACs on the basis of her time in the opera being cut down was one that was technically fair, although it was one that was tough. Time spent in rehearsals can’t be made up in the same manner that a test can be.
When floated the idea of her classmates assisting Bunk with fine-tuning any musical pieces, Rudge stated that the workload would be less than ideal for other students.
“We were already running such intensive rehearsal schedules. It wouldn’t be fair to ask others in the section to put in work to assist with someone who couldn’t be at rehearsal. That would simply be too much work,” said Rudge.
His acknowledgement of the workload is valid, but a member of the viola section made the claim that Bunk could have been caught up, should she have attended SUNYACs.
“I can’t speak for the whole section, but I believe that we would have helped Sarah out if she had come to us and asked,” said one of Bunk’s section mates, who chose to remain anonymous. “We had already spent eight weeks rehearsing. At that point, we all felt pretty good. The weekend rehearsals Sarah would have missed were productive, but the tweaks we made could have been addressed within the section, I feel like.”
This is, of course, all hypothetical. Bunk made the choice to stay home and put her academics first, rather than make the journey to Binghamton to participate in SUNYACs. The team was informed of her decision less than 24 hours before taking the court for the quarterfinals.
“We found out on Friday night at about nine [p.m.] that Sarah wouldn’t be there,” said team captain Olivia Miller. “It was stressful. That’s all I can say. None of us slept on Friday, we couldn’t have.”
The lack of Bunk’s presence from the tournament was felt in multiple waves. The team’s mindset was clearly altered without one of its best players in the lineup, and the loss of Bunk forced others on the team into new and unfamiliar roles.
Bunk spent virtually the entirety of the season playing second doubles for Fredonia alongside Adriana Speach. The two had forged incredible chemistry en route to an outstanding record on the season. Bunk’s absence thrust senior Chloe Karnisky into the role of being Speach’s doubles partner.
“I don’t blame them for the loss. There was no way for it to be prevented,” said Miller. “Anyone who knows tennis knows that when playing doubles, chemistry is so important. Having Sarah there would have made a world of difference.”
The team’s head coach, Greg Catalano, said that Bunk’s absence was not to blame for the team’s loss to Cortland.
“I told our young women that the other side of disappointment is opportunity,” Catalano said in a statement. “We were able to place someone in Sarah’s place that otherwise would not have had the opportunity. We can go on and blame the system for what happened, but it’s not useful.
“We will work on how to correct this situation for the future,” Catalano continued. “And hopefully Fredonia’s chance to become a state champion will prevail.”
While this is the sentiment you would expect from a coach as experienced as Catalano, his players were more certain of the match’s outcome had Bunk been present.
“Yeah,” Miller replied when asked if Bunk would have won her two matches at Binghamton. “Sarah wouldn’t have lost.”
Bunk reiterated this sentiment with a simple “I think I would have won against Cortland. I’m pretty confident.”
Her confidence is backed up by the fact that in their previous matchup with Cortland, Bunk claimed victories in both singles and doubles play. If available for SUNYACs, it stands to reason that Bunk could have flipped the best-of-nine score from 5-2 in favor of Cortland to 4-3 in favor of Fredonia.
With strong performances from Avril King in sixth singles as well as Mallory Mecca and King in third doubles, it stands to reason that Fredonia’s roster would have notched a needed fifth point and advanced past the quarterfinals.
The loss in the quarterfinals also prevented Miller, Chiacchia and Bunk from having the opportunity to increase the individual win mark for the school to 12 apiece.
“It was frustrating to me that we had such a good season but were sent home so early,” said Miller. “We all had too good of seasons to get knocked out first round.”
Miller also brought up the commitment of being a division-III athlete and the priority it takes to commit yourself to a sport.
“All of us are here for our education, obviously. But I know that the opportunity to keep playing tennis factored into our decision to come here,” said Miller.
Miller brings up a valid point about division-III athletes. Athletes at this level do not receive academic scholarships or award for their participation in athletics. Thus, the commitment for athletes at the college level is a massive one with little to no reward, other than the love of a sport and competition.
Athletes at the division-III level often make their college choices coincide with their ability to pursue their sport for four more years at a competitive level. More than 99% of division-III athletes won’t play their respective sports professionally after college, meaning that participating in their sport at a competitive level while in college takes priority in many ways. When your college choice is influenced by athletics as much as it is academics, both facets of campus life tend to take on an equal priority.
Miller explained the frustration of the players by using a simple analogy.
“I get that it’s academics and that they are prioritized. But we have to find a balance.
“What bugged me the most is that she would miss playing time in the opera due to missing a rehearsal for SUNYAC championships. We would never cut someone’s playing time if they missed a practice because they had a performance,” Miller explained.
The wishful sentiment that Bunk could have participated in both activities to fullest capacity was shared by all parties involved. At the end of the day, the scenario with Bunk is not an isolated incident. It wasn’t the first time this has happened, nor will it be the last.
Bunk’s conflict highlights the difficulty of maintaining a student-athlete lifestyle when the student aspect of your campus career involves something as taxing as music. It also highlights the necessity for more specific policies regarding student-athletes and their respective sports. The reality is that many athletes at the division-III level are recruited in the same manner as they are at the division-I level.
These athletes are held to the same academic standards as division-I athletes, the same taxing practice schedules as division-I athletes and are expected to uphold the same ethical standards as division-I athletes. All of these expectations come with the harsh reality that none of these athletes are granted athletic scholarships.
Keeping that in mind, it is absolutely imperative to acknowledge that a division-III student-athlete should have a right to prioritize athletics as much as their academics. There is an obvious desire for more clear-cut policies for the student-athlete to be able to participate as both a student and athlete to the fullest extent possible in all circumstances.
For the time being, Sarah Bunk serves as a critical example of why the number of music majors in athletics is so diminutive. That reason lies in the far too occurring sacrifice that accompanies being an athlete while also partaking in a program as taxing as music. Bunk summed it up with one simple sentiment:
“I just wish things had been different.”