Melissa Gentile loves Alumni Field.
Everything — the field, the Alumni Band, the energy from the stands — it all transports her back to her days as a player under Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. Now, as the head coach at Eastern Michigan, she looks forward to the competition the Wolverines provide in an annual matchup between the two teams. Eighteen years after graduating, it’s still her home away from home.
On Wednesday, Gentile will return to Alumni Field, not knowing if she’ll ever be back.
After this season, her program will no longer exist.
Gentile found out Monday evening, Mar. 19. The rest of her team was told at 7:30 on Tuesday morning.
The athletic department was short on funds. It was cutting four sports, including softball. Once the season was over, the team would be no more.
The Eagles’ first conference series against Buffalo was that weekend. But all of a sudden, it was the last thing on their minds.
Gentile ran her practices with urgency. Her focus was no longer winning games. Instead, it was making sure that her team’s last days together weren’t wasted.
“(We’re) just trying to enjoy every moment with each other and relish every moment,” Gentile said. “ … Just trying to infuse some fun into a very difficult situation that they’re going through, so it’s any little thing that we can do … to keep them loose and trying to keep them positive and moving forward.”
She infuses that fun into every practice, whether it’s a game of tag with the coaches or kicking around a hacky-sack. Off the field, she consoles her players while they cry over their uncertain futures. She calls other coaches asking if they have room on their rosters. Her own future is on hold because the team comes first.
“My family and I will land on our feet,” Gentile said. “… I’m just worried about our players and making sure they’re taken care of.”
Even before the announcement, it had been over two weeks since Eastern Michigan had won a game. And now, with the dissolution of the only program these players have ever known, it’s seemingly a never-ending spiral, a 17-game losing streak that shows no signs of ending any time soon.
Before each game, Gentile gives them a typical coach’s pep talk. Live in the moment. One game at a time.
“All those things sound right to tell them,” Gentile said. “But while telling them that, they’re talking to other college coaches and trying to find opportunities to transfer to schools and have a plan.”
Faced with losing the thing they loved, it seemed impossible to focus on something so frivolous as a singular game.
Twenty minutes across town, the Michigan softball program is the antithesis of the Eagles’. The Wolverines always draw large crowds. They contend not only for conference titles, but national titles. They’ve won 22 of their last 23 games. They have nothing to worry about.
But for both programs, the benefits of a yearly matchup are similar.
For Hutchins, non-conference home games early in the Big Ten season help get her team accustomed to the distractions of the sometimes-rowdy crowd. For Gentile, the Wolverines provide the toughest competition the Eagles will face all season — similarly good preparation for Mid-America Conference play. And for both, the game provides an opportunity to reconnect. Gentile has always seen Hutchins as a mentor, the person she looks to for advice.
Now, though, those reasons seem so meaningless.
“We’re trying to get our emotions in check and come out and really go out with a bang,” Gentile said. “We know that our games are limited and our opportunities are limited. … Our kids are devastated.”
If this were a movie, Eastern Michigan would come out on Wednesday and beat Michigan — or at least put up a fight. It would spark a streak to end the season. The Eagles would band together and save their team.
But this is Washtenaw County, not Hollywood. The athletic department made it clear to Gentile that its decision is final. And take your pick at any stat — it’s clear that the probability of an upset is almost nonexistent.
Instead, Eastern Michigan will approach the game knowing that after it’s over, the Eagles will have just 14 games left together. There’s little hope of salvaging their program or their season, so instead they’ll come to Alumni Field holding onto everything they still have. Their devotion to the game. Their spirit. And each other.
“I hope this team’s legacy … is that they just go out leaving their hearts on the field,” Gentile said. “And whatever happens, happens, but they leave their heart and passion for what they do on the field.”