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Soccer program suddenly in turmoil

University of New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs, left, makes a point during a news conference about the hazing incident that engulfed members of the Lobo women's soccer team. At right is head coach Kit Vela. Krebs announced on Friday that Vela will be suspended one week without pay. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)
University of New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs, left, makes a point during a news conference about the hazing incident that engulfed members of the Lobo women's soccer team. At right is head coach Kit Vela. Krebs announced on Friday that Vela will be suspended one week without pay. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)
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How did it come to this?

How did one Sunday night spin so out of control that it jeopardizes a program, imperils a veteran coach and stains a university?

JOHNSON-Ed_2012A week ago Wednesday, Kit Vela, beginning her 14th year as coach of the UNM women’s soccer team, stood on the practice field under partly cloudy skies and marveled at her young team.

“They really, really love each other,” she said. “In any women’s team, that’s one of the most important dynamics or values to the team. They’ll do anything for each other.”

On Wednesday, Vela sat next to Paul Krebs, athletic director of said university.

She looked shell-shocked by the incident, shaken by the media attention that she shies from even under more pleasant circumstances.

The call had come on Monday at 2 a.m. – the hour almost nobody wants to hear the phone ring. A couple of her players were in the hospital. There had been drinking. One of them had trouble breathing.

The dizzying events of the next two days quickly got spun as only modern media can do.

There was a breathless KOB-TV report, filled with allegations of nakedness and spraying urine. It was followed the next day with another one, complete with something that looked like a booze bottle placement advertisement and repeated shots of those plastic cups college kids are known to drink beer from.

Websites the likes of Gawker.com were quick to run with the story.

Meanwhile, UNM conducted an actual investigation, led by Rob Burford of the Dean of Students Office, and Breda Bova, UNM’s former faculty rep and a veteran of previous investigations involving athletes at the school.

Bova said the investigation continues, but they have already talked with every member of the women’s soccer team. She said their stories were consistent. She believes they were forthcoming.

“They were told they should be forthcoming, that there would be no retaliation,” Bova said. “That was made clear by Kit and it was made clear by Paul, and made clear every time we met every one of them.”

It became clear to Krebs that hazing was involved and that alcohol was the main culprit. The urine in question turned out to be the kind of windshield fluid used at gas stations. There was some stripping of clothes, but no nudity.

Still, he acknowledged the humiliation the incident has brought upon the school.

For her part, Vela expressed anger and disappointment. She had addressed hazing and alcohol with her players, but obviously did not get her point across.

She said her main focus now is to help her players “understand the gravity of the situation and go forward.”

But how does this program go forward?

The jokes are out there. Some of the players are reluctant to go to classes, fearing what stares or ridicule await.

Many of the players told the two investigators they can’t believe people would consider so little of them to think they would actually spray someone with urine.

But as Krebs said, that was brought on by themselves.

The season-opener at Texas Tech was canceled, which likely saved them a lot of grief from Lubbock fans. But if the season goes forward, they are certain to hear derisive comments.

Still, there is no certainty there will be a season.

Bova and Burford continue their investigation. UNM, under its student code of conduct, could suspend or expel any number of the players.

The program will come under attack from other coaches in recruiting.

And there’s this from Krebs: “We’re still assessing to what degree our coaches knew or should have known.”

Vela’s Lobos went 48-20-14 between 2009-12, with a couple of NCAA Tournament appearances. Last year they fell to 8-10-3 with a couple of achingly close calls.

But the contract extension she signed on June 17, 2013, ends on June 30, 2015.

What if she has no 2014 season? What if so many players are suspended or expelled that she cannot field a team? Will she get the benefit of the doubt?

“Will it affect us?” Vela said. “I guess it could.”

While she believes this team is an athletic group, it is young, with only one senior. If the season does go forward, there is no guarantee the players will be able to push aside this incident and play well – or well enough.

Perhaps they will rally around the old saw: It’s us against the world.

When the media ordeal was over, Vela walked back to her office, side by side with her husband and assistant coach, Jorge Vela. They went back to work, not knowing what that work will mean.

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