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British Columbia UBC women’s softball team players sue to save program

Students walk between buildings on UBC campus in Vancouver.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

The bases were loaded on Sunday evening when Kelly Rumley hit a a home run, her grand slam winning the last regular-season game for the University of British Columbia's softball team. Three days later, the entire squad sued UBC.

Under a controversial realignment of the university's athletics unveiled on Feb. 28, the women's softball team will be one of five groups downgraded from varsity to club status. Effective at the end of 2015, the move will end much of the funding and support the team currently receives.

Over the past three weeks, as the 18 players on the team studied for exams and fought to qualify for the conference finals, they also helped prepare a lawsuit that alleges gender discrimination as one of the reasons for getting the axe.

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"It was a no-brainer, we want to be a varsity sport again," said third baseman Cassandra Dypchey of the lawsuit. "We're still living in the moment, but the last few weeks have been a wild run."

Delivered to the university on Wednesday, the team's statement of claim requests that varsity status be restored and that UBC construct suitable facilities for varsity softball. The lawsuit also seeks an undefined amount of punitive damages for the distress suffered by players.

While UBC men's and women's alpine skiing, and men's and women's Nordic skiing, are also being reduced to club status, the softball team is the only squad with a coach to lose funding.

According to the team's lawyer, women's softball was an easy target as the university's vice-president for students, Louise Cowin, searched for cuts.

"I feel that softball has been made a bit of a scapegoat in terms of Louise Cowin saving face, someone had to go," said Kerri Farion, herself a recent graduate of UBC. "They were the latest team to come in and they don't have old alumni, the oldest is 24 or 25. They had no one to defend them at the table."

Having yet to receive the team's lawsuit, UBC would not comment. However, university spokesman Randy Schmidt did confirm that no other legal suit had been received due to the realignment.

"It's a difficult situation, but I'm proud of them for standing up for what they believe in," said head coach Gord Collings.

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The softball team is young. The squad was only established in 2008 and Mr. Collings was hired last June. The university's softball diamond was finished in 2012, but it wasn't built to varsity standards. According to the documents filed in Vancouver court, members of the team were promised that proper facilities would be built for them.

Ms. Dypchey refused a scholarship at the Savannah College of Art and Design to play at UBC. She says a number of other players turned down similar offers due to promises made by the university. "It demolishes our team, the only way we can play is if we have support from the university as a varsity sport," she said.

Few of the top-calibre players have any interest in playing for a club. With next season promising to be the team's last at the varsity level, recruiting has become harder for the squad. A number of prospects have decided to take offers from other universities, according to Ms. Dypchey.

Speaking with a UBC official after his team won on Sunday, Mr. Collings heaped praise on the players. "They're just great representatives of the program, I just think they were awesome," he said.

Much of that program now seems likely to disappear. While four of the players are graduating, the other 14 have committed to returning next year.

Meantime, the team has qualified for the finals of the American conference it plays in, and will head to Georgia in early May.

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