Through youth, club, high school and college soccer, twin sisters Jenny and Michelle Allen never played for separate teams.
The Brookwood graduates wanted to be together, which led to signing with the Armstrong State women’s soccer program, their home the past three seasons. They already were looking forward to later this year as Armstrong seniors, competing alongside each other one final season before entering the working world.
Those plans were crushed when plans were announced for Georgia Southern and Armstrong State to consolidate based on a University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents vote Jan. 11. The schools were notified Jan. 5, but the Allens and the other four underclass Gwinnett athletes at Armstrong didn’t find out until mid-March that the Savannah school would cease intercollegiate athletics after May.
That senior season at Armstrong later this year was no longer an option. Neither was playing on the same team in 2017, the merger forcing them into separate programs for the first time in their 21 years.
“It happened pretty all of a sudden,” Jenny Allen said. “It was probably two days before we were about to head back down here after Christmas break. Somebody sent me a link to an article down here about how the Board of Regents would decide the next day if they would consider the merger. We had not heard anything about this until then. We had heard nothing. We hadn’t heard rumors. That was the first time we heard anything. The next day we headed to Armstrong after Christmas break and heard the Board of Regents would consider the merger. I think me and Michelle spent the whole four and a half hour car ride talking to everyone, our teammates, our coach, our family. We were freaking out obviously.
“In the next week or so, they announced they were going to merge us, but we were hopeful we would at least have the 2017 fall season because we weren’t merging until 2018. So we were hopeful at first. The Board of Regents took forever to decide and at first we were hopeful for one more season, to play our senior year. Right before Spring Break I guess, March 10 or something like that, we got an email from the athletic director about a mandatory meeting at 9. We knew it was good or bad news, and assumed it was bad news. And it was. ... We were very blindsided by the whole thing. We had absolutely no idea. None. Even our coaches had no idea. They were recruiting during Christmas break. I waited awhile to look at other colleges because if we were having a season, I was staying here.”
The March announcement left the Allens and one of their soccer teammates, Mountain View grad Ashley Lewis, plenty to think about.
The same held true for Mill Creek products Carley Eiken and Emily Wylie, both volleyball players at Armstrong, and Peachtree Ridge’s Austin Mancilla, a golfer for the Pirates.
In addition to dealing with the hurt of losing your team and teammates, they had to figure out the next step. All six wanted to continue playing college sports, which meant another round of recruiting similar to when they were high-schoolers. It was more complex for rising seniors like the Allens and Wylie, while Eiken (a sophomore), Lewis (a freshman) and Mancilla (a freshman) had more long-term eligibility to offer a new school.
“We all found out three days before classes started,” Wylie said. “We all came back and were getting ready, getting mentally prepared to start classes and start with the spring season. … It was kind of upsetting. I wish they could have told us sooner so we could prepare. Now recruiting is super difficult to do this late in the game.”
As the athletes soon found out, the college options were limited at many places where coaches already had allocated all of their scholarship money for the current signing class. Playing for Georgia Southern wasn’t an option, the Allens said, because their scholarships didn’t transition over to that school. They were offered to stay as regular students, but collegiate athletics on scholarship wasn’t a possibility at the newly merged school, which will stick with the Georgia Southern name.
“It was really weird because with soccer they start recruiting so early that it’s hard to find schools with (scholarship) money,” said Lewis, who has committed to play soccer at Valdosta State. “The whole Armstrong thing was tough with the last-minute notice. You have to hop on it quickly to find another school. Luckily I was able to.”
Most of the Gwinnett products didn’t entertain the idea of giving up college athletics and finished college as a regular student.
“From what I’ve heard, Georgia Southern hasn’t been too open to all the athletes,” said Mancilla, who will play golf at Georgia College after this semester. “It’s kind of disappointing. A couple of guys on the team emailed and never got a reply. It’s kind of disappointing on that end. It was really stressful because you could look at a lot of places, but it’s tough for golf. Golf doesn’t bring in a lot of money. Golf doesn’t have a lot of money, so a lot of schools didn’t have lot of money for golf scholarships.
“Most of the guys on my team are juniors and I feel for them because they only have one more year. Luckily, me and the other two freshmen had pretty solid years and found places to go next year. I feel for the seniors, juniors and sophomores. They planned on staying next year. Now they have to decide whether to transfer or stay.”
The decisions the Armstrong athletes faced didn’t just involve finding a place to compete in college sports. Their Armstrong credits — and how those transitioned to a new school — was an even bigger concern.
It worked out smoothly for the freshmen, whose core classes didn’t cause any transfer issues, and it ended up fine for Eiken, an early childhood education major who wants to teach kindergarten. She found an opportunity to play her final two volleyball seasons even closer to home at Georgia State, while her teammate Wylie, with one season of eligibility, didn’t have many options — she is leaning toward Lindenwood (Mo.), where her Armstrong State head coach Will Condon just got a job.
“I did (consider giving up college volleyball), but it hurts my heart to do that,” Wylie said. “Volleyball’s literally my life. Hopefully, when I graduate, I can play overseas.”
“It was crazy at first, but it’s nice to know where I’m going next year,” Eiken said. “I was very blessed with all the options I had.”
The Allens, with different majors, had different considerations for college. Jenny Allen looked at Kennesaw State, but only 55 of her 95 credits would have transferred to KSU, and she said she needed 74 to be eligible. She was shocked to learn that she would even lose credits if she transferred to Georgia Southern.
She considered a handful of colleges, but eventually signed to play her final soccer season at Furman.
“I could have almost graduated early here, but now I’m going from graduating early to graduating late (because of lost credits with the transfer),” said Jenny Allen, an economics major. “I’ve accepted that I’m going to graduate late. They told us you can keep your scholarship and stay here as a student, but I wanted to play. … My HOPE Scholarship only accounted for 120 hours, and I’m losing 30 of those hours, so it doesn’t matter if I’m going out of state.”
Michelle Allen’s choices were North Georgia or Columbus State, though soccer at those places looked doubtful initially.
“With (a) nursing (major), I honestly was very blessed,” Michelle Allen said. “I was already in the nursing program here and I didn’t think I’d be able to transfer at all. Once you get into the nursing program, it’s really hard to get out of one and into another. I had to send all my syllabi. At first, North Georgia wouldn’t look at me. The coach went back, through the athletic director, and they were able to get them to evaluate my courses. It was a little bit harder for me.
“I really didn’t think there was a chance for me to transfer, so I’m really grateful to get a chance to play my senior year. … I didn’t want to be (at Armstrong) in the fall saying I should have just emailed them and tried, so I emailed some other schools. North Georgia contacted me back and said we’re going to try a little harder to see if we can get you in.”
In the end, the academic situation worked out nicely for Michelle Allen. She won’t lose any credits by transferring to North Georgia to play her senior soccer season. What she is losing is one final season of soccer with her twin sister.
The Allens, along with Lewis, played one final soccer game together March 31 with Armstrong, representing the Pirates in a spring exhibition match against USC-Beaufort. Armstrong won the match 9-0, but it was a bittersweet occasion when reality set in that a half century of intercollegiate athletics at the school was nearing its end.
It was even more emotional for Jenny and Michelle Allen because it was their last time on the same team, a situation they never expected to face until their school’s consolidation with Georgia Southern. Both twins will be able to play college soccer in the fall, but the seniors will be divided by distance, Jenny in Greenville, S.C., and Michelle in Dahlonega.
“That’s definitely going to be weird,” Michelle Allen said. “I’m just glad we didn’t go to schools in the same conference. That would have been worse. But it’s definitely going to be hard. We’ve never been separated by more than two weeks. We’ll probably FaceTime every day.”