Coaches at Cabrini University Face an Uncertain Future

With Cabrini University on its last legs, its sports teams are in the worst sort of limbo.

Though Kate Pearson left Cabrini University this past July to take over as head women’s basketball coach at another school, she remains close with her former colleagues. She connects often with those who’ve graduated and with the players she would’ve been coaching this year. And she worries about her two daughters, Kylie and Danielle. “They were raised in the [Cabrini] program and on the sidelines,” says Pearson, who’s now coaching at Rowan University in New Jersey. “But they’re resilient.”

This past June, Villanova University announced plans to purchase Cabrini, which has struggled with enrollment and was down to 1,600 students in 2022. Thus far, Villanova has been hush-hush about plans for the 112-acre campus. To help students transition to new schools, Cabrini is working with Eastern University, Gwynedd-Mercy University, Ursinus College and Holy Family University to help smooth the transfer of credits. La Salle University and Rosemont College have also been open to accepting Cabrini students.

As for the coaches, most were torn. Do they stick around for the final year, or do they move on? Some remain. Others, like Pearson, have left. She spent 14 years as the head women’s basketball coach and the previous four as an assistant at Cabrini. “I think it’s sad,” she says. “Most of the people who were there and those who stayed did so for a reason. They weren’t making millions of dollars. They were in it for their commitment to the players and the alumni. It’s not that we were in denial. It’s more disbelief and not understanding how it could happen. It’s sad to think that the alumni will have nothing to come back to.”

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After the news of her university’s pending sale to Villanova became public, Cabrini aquatics director Cindy Ikeler lost 20 swimmers.
After the news of her university’s pending sale to Villanova became public, Cabrini aquatics director Cindy Ikeler lost 20 swimmers.

During her time at Cabrini, Pearson was the school’s all-time winningest coach with 240 victories, leading the Cavaliers to five 20-win seasons, five NCAA tournament berths and two tourney wins, while posting a .658 winning percentage. She hopes to enjoy the same level of success at Rowan, even if she does miss her former home. “There were a lot of people in the community and players that I built relationships with,” Pearson says. “Once you get invested that way, it’s hard to leave.”

CABRINI MEN’S BASKETBALL COACH RYAN VAN ZELST IS TRYING TO CREATE SOMETHING OF A NORMAL ATMOSPHERE, THOUGH HE UNDERSTANDS THAT ISN’T EASY TO DO. “I LOVE IT HERE,” HE SAYS. “I WANTED TO REBUILD THE PROGRAM AND GET IT BACK TO WHERE IT SHOULD BE. BUT THINGS HAPPEN.”

It was just as hard for Steve Colfer. The men’s lacrosse coach had assembled a resume worthy of significant acclaim during his 23 years leading the program. In 2021, he was inducted into the Eastern PA Chapter of the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame. During his time at Cabrini, Colfer posted a 329-86 record, captured 22 straight league titles and made 21 appearances in the NCAA tournament. In 2019, he led the Cavaliers to the Division III national title.

Cabrini University

Less than a week after Villanova announced that it would be acquiring Cabrini, Colfer moved to Episcopal Academy, where he’s directing the boys lacrosse squad and serving as an assistant athletic director. He’d definitely sensed a different campus vibe leading up to the agreement of sale. “The way I’ve described it is that you’re walking down a city street, and you see smoke coming out of a window,” he says. “Is just one room on fire, or is the whole building? You don’t know.”

Colfer is excited about taking over at EA, which has a rich lacrosse tradition. But like Pearson, he was sad to leave the place where he grew up professionally. He likens it to someone close to him dying and figuring out how and when to deal with it. “There’s no other way to look at it,” Colfer says. “You work so hard to build something, and you put your life’s passion and energy into it. For it to go away is very difficult.”

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Life has been tough for the coaches who left Cabrini, but few have had as challenging a road as Ryan Van Zelst, who stayed. In late April, he was hired as the Cavaliers’ head men’s basketball coach after one season directing Penn State Abington’s program. Two months later, he learned his inaugural season at Cabrini would also be his last. While Van Zelst is trying to create something of a normal atmosphere, he understands that isn’t easy to do. “I love it here,” he says. “I wanted to rebuild the program and get it back to where it should be. But things happen.”

Van Zelst and his staff will need to help just about the entire roster find new homes for next year. Of the 16 players on the Cabrini team, only one is a senior. “I know a decent amount of people in the business,” says Van Zelst, who’s also coached at Albright College (his alma mater), York College of Pennsylvania and the University of Scranton.

Cindy Ikeler won’t have to make as many phone calls to help her swimmers transfer after this season. Once the news broke about the sale, Cabrini’s swim program lost 20 students. There are five Cavaliers on the men’s team and just two on the women’s side. “It’s like being on hospice—long-term hospice,” says Ikeler, who’s been Cabrini’s aquatics director for 12 years. “But I don’t feel that way every day.”

Like Ikeler, Van Zelst hasn’t started thinking too seriously about his own next steps. He wants to make this a positive season for the Cavaliers. After he’s helped the players move on, he’ll work on his own future. “My job is to try to make us as successful as possible in terms of wins and losses,” he says. “I also want to make them better people and players. The focus is on them.”

“There’s a core group of us picking up the pieces and the odds and ends to make the students feel as if it’s business as usual,” adds Ikeler. “I’m impressed with the tenacity of the athletes and students.”

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