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Down to last shot, Brandeis on the money

Led by Aaron Hattenbach (front row, left), the Brandeis golf team raised $22,000, saving the program for another season. Led by Aaron Hattenbach (front row, left), the Brandeis golf team raised $22,000, saving the program for another season. (Photo Courtesy of Brandeis University)
By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / April 23, 2009
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When a shot misses its mark, the challenge in golf is simple: scramble, save par, head to the next hole.

But when the Brandeis men's team met with university officials in late January, they were presented with a different challenge, and a scramble they weren't expecting or familiar with: Raise $22,000 in eight weeks, or the team will be suspended - a result of budget cuts spread across the school's athletic programs.

What the nine-man team was able to achieve in a short window is much bigger than a par save. For a year, at least, they've saved their program.

"From the beginning, I understood this was going to be an uphill battle. With the economy and the stock market taking a huge hit, and our school's endowment sliding, it didn't really look good," said senior captain Aaron Hattenbach, who led the fund-raising charge. "It took persistence, a tenacious outlook, and dedication on the part of our team, guys who believed we could do this."

The culmination came yesterday, when the school announced that the team would maintain its varsity status for the 2009-10 season.

"What I really like most about it is they took something that was very negative and turned it around into a positive," said athletic director Sheryl Sousa. "I was pleasantly surprised they got it done. Especially at the Division 3 level, where we don't do a lot of fund-raising. It's harder to do than people think."

It was Sousa who gathered Hattenbach and his teammates on Jan. 26 and told them that golf - along with sailing, another varsity sport - would be suspended. But instead of simply accepting the decision, team members began asking Sousa questions: What other options do we have? If men's sports are being eliminated, what are the Title IX implications? How much is the annual operating budget? Can we keep playing if that amount is raised?

Sousa provided the numbers: Golf's annual operating budget was roughly $22,000. The school's board of trustees would be on campus in late March to approve budgets for the fiscal year. If the team could raise the money by then, the decision to suspend would be reversed and the program would be spared for next season.

So Hattenbach and his teammates went to work. A Facebook group was created ("Save the Brandeis golf team"), letters sent out, phone calls made. A fund-raising company in New York, My Sports Dreams, was consulted. Friends, families, and especially Brandeis golf alumni were instrumental in helping spread the word.

Donations started trickling in. Then, the big one. A donor pledged $7,500, with the donor's company matching the amount. In an instant, the team had secured $15,000, more than two-thirds what was needed.

"We were confident," Hattenbach said. "It's ironic, during an economic period like this, that we were confident, but we were."

Hattenbach created a spread sheet, listing the date, donor, amount, and method of payment. But donations were also being sent to his teammates, the athletic department, and the school's development office. It was difficult keeping track of so many monetary pieces (donations ranged from $25 to $7,500) and having an accurate total with the late March deadline looming.

By Hattenbach's count, 82 donors had sent in their financial support through the first week of April, for a total of $21,115, with more money pledged but not yet received. That convinced Sousa and school officials that the operating budget for next season had been reached.

"It's surprising what you can do if you put some effort forward," said Bill Shipman, who coaches golf and fencing at Brandeis. "I learned that if you ask, people will give you money, to some degree, if you have a good reason. Aaron and the rest of the team really grabbed hold of this and really made it their passion."

But why Hattenbach, who will graduate next month with two degrees and a non-classroom experience that should jump out to prospective employers? Why was he so involved, since the decision to suspend the team next year wouldn't have affected him?

"I really can't imagine what going to college without playing golf would have been like. It was a huge part of my life. One of the main reasons I came from California all the way to the Northeast was to play golf and be a student-athlete," said Hattenbach, who is from Santa Monica. "I looked at my teammates, and thought it would be a shame if these guys couldn't continue their careers because the school doesn't have the funds.

"Once you cut the team, it's gone. Saving it for one year, you at least give it a chance for the future."

A push to permanently endow the golf program is underway, but the amount needed - at least $300,000, according to Sousa - is considerable. For now, Hattenbach and his teammates are focusing on the team's final event of the season, the University Athletic Association championship in Flowery Branch, Ga., starting Saturday. After what they've been through the past three months, scrambling, saving par, and heading to the next hole will have a whole new meaning.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com