Amid COVID-19, school cut his golf program. Now, De La Salle alum might be reason it's revived

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

It took years, and a long, winding path, for Nico Ciavaglia to wind up playing collegiate golf at prestigious Division II school St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas.

And it took about five minutes for it all to be wiped away.

"It was just heartbreaking, devastating," Ciavaglia told The News over the phone this week, from Austin, where he remains quarantined — and, now, without a golf team.

"It seemed like all that hard work we put in for the school as student-athletes went right down the drain."

Warren De La Salle alum Nico Ciavaglia is trying to save his college golf team in Texas.

Ciavaglia, a Metro Detroit native and Warren De La Salle alum, was one of dozens of St. Edward's athletes who learned April 15 that their sports team was being cut amid the financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to men's golf, St. Edward's announced it was cutting women's golf, men's soccer, men's and women's tennis, and cheer.

These have been the most sweeping athletic cuts by a university in the United States since the coronavirus crisis really took hold last month. Other schools that have cut athletic programs recently include Cincinnati with men's soccer (senior midfielder Cameron Panley is a Birmingham Brother Rice alumnus), and Old Dominion with wrestling (junior Ali Wahab is a Dearborn Crestwood alumnus).

While most Michigan colleges are bracing for big athletic budget cuts, none have announced any team cuts.

Meanwhile, in Austin, it's a stark reality — though one that might have a happy ending, and if it does, the golf team will have Ciavaglia to thank.

"It'd be a huge impact," said Chris Hill, St. Edward's golf coach and a former golfer at Wayne State.

READ: Petition to save the St. Edward's men's golf program

Ciavaglia was stewing in his apartment a week ago, after receiving the news — in a text from Hill, which at first he thought was a prank. Sitting with his teammate, Carlos Tercero, who is staying with him during quarantine, Ciavaglia began to jot down some notes, and feelings.

Eventually, by 11 p.m. that night, those thoughts led to him starting a petition at designed to rally support to save the golf program.

He posted it, and went to bed, expecting he might get 500 signatures when it was all said and done.

When he woke up, he had about 2,500, and around 3 p.m. Wednesday, it was at 16,101.

St. Edward's golf coach Chris Hill is a Wayne State alumnus.

"I was like, 'Holy crap,'" Ciavaglia said. "It got around the whole city. It's truly remarkable how much support we have been getting."

Even better, the administration has taken notice and is in discussions on ways to possibly save the program. Hill formed a committee of what he calls "very influential people" that have been meeting with the school's administration. They met Friday for two-and-a-half hours, Tuesday for two hours, and were expected to continue discussions Wednesday.

No decision is imminent, though Hill said he likes his chances — especially given that the program's budget is relatively small, at about $44,000, and anything they spend beyond that is covered through fundraising. Typically, the program will spend $80,000 a year, and Hill said, "We never spent a dollar we didn't have."

"I'm really proud of the job the players have done to rally support," said Hill, who, for his part, learned of the team's cut in a three-minute Zoom chat with school administrators, "and I'm proud of the administration for trying to find a fair resolution."

Again, nothing's been decided, and the outlook for the other programs doesn't appear good.

But if men's golf is saved, Hill knows who to credit first: Ciavaglia.

"He's the most passionate, he's the leader on my team," said Hill, a Sarnia native who first recruited Ciavaglia to Concordia University, also in Austin, before bringing him as a transfer to St. Edward's when Hill got that job two years ago. "Everything that kid does exceeds my expectations.

"When he put the petition together and said he was hoping for 500 names, with Nico, I knew this thing was gonna catch fire. Nico does things 100 percent and he does it the right away."

Hill also knows that if the program is revived, it could go on to big things next season, with eight would-be seniors. St. Edward's would like to pull off the same feat that the Minnesota golf team did in 2002, winning a national championship the same year the school planned to cut that program, before reversing the decision.

Nico Ciavaglia played four years of golf at Warren De La Salle.

Ciavaglia, 21, played golf all four years at De La Salle, and was twice named All-Catholic.

He began his college career at Oakland, where he had hoped to play golf, but it didn't work out. A chance encounter with Hill — who played at Wayne State from 2002-06 and won a Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship in 2004 — got him playing golf at Division III Concordia.

Then, when Hill got the head-coaching job at St. Edward's, Ciavaglia followed him there, but had to sit out last season because of transfer rules.

He finally got to play this year, and was excited about the prospects before the pandemic shut down all NCAA sports in mid-March. Then, in mid-April, it took away his team for good.

Or, maybe not for good. Ciavaglia could be the one to get that changed.

"I was always taught when I was younger by my father (Dave) to always be a leader. I tried to lead my team as much as I could, be a leader around my friends," said Ciavaglia, who is on academic scholarship at St. Edward's — and that still will be honored, as will those on athletic scholarship, no matter the outcome.

"I wanted to take the initiative, not that I felt like it was my responsibility, more than I felt it was necessary.

"We needed to put this out there."

Twitter: @tonypaul1984