Relics of past glory line the wall on the second floor of the Coliseum. Faded photographs of boxers in shiny maize shorts are propped up on the counter. A newspaper article on Shamael Haque, one of Michigan’s most celebrated boxers, hangs next to the team photos in a sturdy frame. Dust is starting to build up, but no one wants to move the memories.
It’s rather quiet, except for the beat of the music — from a CD mix entitled “boxing hardcore.” The red, blue and white ropes lining the boxing ring and the seven punching bags are still, but not for long.
A rush of energy bursts into the room as nearly 20 women enter, drenched in sweat from a pre-practice jog. They are tall, short, white, black and Latina. They are freshmen, seniors and even University staff members. And every single one of them is ready to wind up and punch the stress-absorbing bags for two hours or until their arms give out — whichever comes first.
This is the world of mismatched T-shirt uniforms and sharing equipment with the men’s team. This is the world of women’s club boxing.
Club sports occupy an interesting niche on campus. While some club programs, like women’s boxing and martial arts clubs, emphasize instruction and weekly exercise, certain teams are as competitive as almost any varsity team.
The 42 clubs registered with the Recreational Sports department include everything from obscure groups like the rifle team to varsity sibling sports like baseball. The time commitments vary, but for some club athletes, practices and games exceed more than 20 hours a week.
Members of club teams compete without the perks afforded varsity teams: scholarships, brand new gear and a page on the official Michigan athletic site, mgoblue.com. They sacrifice their time, energy and grade point averages simply for the love of the game.
Still, there’s a dream that many club team presidents have. It’s the rags-to-riches, club-to-varsity Hollywood tale set against dramatic music, like the kind in “Rocky.”
In fact, five club sports — men’s and women’s lacrosse, men’s rowing, women’s synchronized skating and women’s synchronized swimming — have the classification of “club varsity,” a title Athletic Director Bill Martin created in 2000 to put ultra-competitive club teams on the track toward varsity standing.
The path to varsity status is riddled with intense requirements, funding considerations and legal constraints — meaning the University’s strongest club teams have to maintain that strength through mainly the will of their members alone.
Men’s Ultimate Frisbee captain Ollie Hondred was the first club sport member to use the word “cult” to describe his team. But his counterpart on the women’s team agreed.
“Ultimate Frisbee can be described as some sort of cult,” said Anna Maria Paruk, captain of the women’s Ultimate Frisbee club. “At least for me, this isn’t just a sport. It can be described almost as a way of life.”
It’s not surprising that club athletes would describe their teams that way — while fiercely competing to snag the best non-varsity athletes on campus, club teams like Ultimate Frisbee rely on the dedication of their members to survive.
Unlike varsity sports with extensive recruitment budgets that include cross-country visits, club sports depend on word of mouth and their Festifall tables to attract new talent. Among the many lost freshmen and people looking to boost their résumés at Festifall are former high school athletes looking to keep sports in their day-to-day lives.
“It’s an opportunity for people who might not want to — or can’t — take the sport they’ve always known and loved to the next level,” said Cheryl Jendryka, Recreational Sports Assistant Director, who works with all club teams. “But they still want to be an athlete or they still want to go around all day and chase something on a field, whether that’s a soccer ball or a Frisbee. Same thing with rugby or boxing – you find these new sports this way.”
At the men’s Ultimate Frisbee tryouts in September, dozens of freshmen showed up with Frisbees in hand. As upperclassmen players tagged the recruits’ calves with Sharpie to distinguish them on the field, the aspiring members shared their reasons for coming. Some had been high school soccer players who knew they couldn’t compete at the Division-I varsity level and always enjoyed an afternoon Frisbee toss.
Hondred said his best recruiting tool is to find the guys who didn’t make the men’s club soccer team, which is lower than varsity soccer but still competes on a very high level. Some members of both the women’s and men’s club soccer teams, for example, turned down the opportunity to play soccer at smaller Division-III programs to attend the University.
A STEPPING STONE?
Turning down varsity offers elsewhere and deciding to pay to play at Michigan is most evident in the world of club varsity athletics.
In 2000, after he was newly hired as athletic director, Bill Martin created the club varsity classification to go along with the existing application for attaining varsity status. Before teams earn the club varsity distinction, they are evaluated on a number of topics, from the existence of a national governing body to the amount of hours spent practicing each week. Clubs that have been established for more than eight years are eligible to apply for the club varsity label.
Benefits of the new status include priority in scheduling practice locations/times and opportunities for sponsored gear and warmup suit packages.
The men’s lacrosse team has garnered a great deal of attention on its quest for varsity status. Boasting a 40-game winning streak, the team’s two flawless seasons have led to national championships in 2008 and 2009.
But the men’s lacrosse team isn’t the only one making the most of the “varsity” part of club varsity.
The men’s rowing team has also won two straight national championships, the first two hosted by the newly formed America Collegiate Rowing Association.
The two teams share more similarities with the University’s varsity teams beyond the level of competition they face and the rigorous workout regimens (often including two-a-day practices) they undergo.
Both men’s lacrosse and men’s rowing have representatives on the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, which includes members from all varsity programs.
But perhaps the most visible sign of growth for both men’s lacrosse and men’s rowing was their inclusion in Mock Rock, the athletic department’s annual fundraiser for C.S. Mott’s Children Hospital.
One major difference from varsity sports is that club varsity sports require upperclassmen to act as coaches, captains and star players all at once.
“You’re entirely on your own, and that’s the difference (from) the varsity sports,” Jendryka said. “Not only are the club athletes trying to get the best athletes and practicing, but some of them are going to practice, then coming home and writing the lineup for the game the next day.”
Considering the large commitment required of players, several club sports leaders believe their teams are competitive enough to take to the varsity level — and to receive the perks that distinction delivers.
“I view our team more as a varsity team that competes the same way the other varsity teams do,” said Matt Zoufaly, the men’s rowing club president. “Our training schedule, competition schedule, everything is more like theirs. Our opponents are the same caliber as their opponents. There are no differences. It’s just the label.”
Club varsity is a much more ambiguous distinction, one that not many students even understand. It’s supposed to help put club teams on a track to varsity, but in reality, no team has crossed the finish line. In the nine years that club varsity has existed, zero teams have moved up to varsity status.
BREAKING THROUGH TO VARSITY
It’s been nearly a decade since the Michigan Athletic Department has welcomed a new varsity team. In 2000, the men’s soccer team and the women’s water polo team both earned varsity recognition — but the result took years to achieve.
Steve Burns, who played on the men’s club soccer team from 1984 to 1988 and returned to coach it in 1992, was the driving force behind the team’s rise to varsity status. He had to write multiple proposals to the Athletic Department, including a more than 30-page report that addressed concerns from finances to Title IX, which requires educational and athletic programs to provide equal opportunities for men and women as well as financial assistance proportional to participation rates.
To satisfy Title IX, Burns worked behind the scenes to find a women’s team that could rise to varsity alongside men’s soccer. He contacted competitive women’s club teams like lacrosse, ice hockey and water polo to urge them to make a push for varsity, too.
“It was a concerted effort to coordinate and get the right people the right information at what we thought was the right time,” Burns said. “If there was going to be a men’s sport and women’s sport added at the same time, they’d need to have their ducks all in a row, too.”
And as good fortune would have it, it was the right time. A strong economy and increased funding to the Athletic Department due to the Michigan football team’s 1997 national championship provided the resources to grow the University’s varsity program.
Since then, the men’s varsity soccer team has earned berths to the NCAA Tournament three times in nine years. Just last season, it went all the way to the third round before suffering a defeat to No. 12 Indiana. Meanwhile, women’s water polo has reached the Tournament four times since earning varsity status.
THE GLASS CEILING OF COLLEGE ATHLETICS
The two newest varsity teams provide a blueprint for teams aspiring to varsity status, such as increasingly popular sports like lacrosse and women’s ice hockey. And for a team like men’s rowing, which competes against varsity programs all season but is excluded from the sport’s traditional national championship, the fight for the varsity distinction is more critical.
“We don’t really need all the stuff (the Adidas-sponsored gear) that the varsity teams have,” Zoufaly said. “It’s all nice and everyone likes it, but we just want the status to compete.”
But for club varsity teams, dropping the “club” can be difficult.
Following the procedure that the men’s soccer club program used, teams start the process by submitting a formal request to a planning committee of the University’s Advisory Board on Intercollegiate Athletics. The committee looks at four main categories when making its decision: student-athlete welfare, quality of competition at the conference and national level, viability of a new sport and financial considerations.
While the first three categories are significant, most competitive club teams have those bases covered. Men’s rowing and men’s lacrosse both compete against the nation’s top varsity programs, and women’s hockey has grown significantly at the high school level in the state of Michigan in just the past five years — just to name a few examples.
But really, the struggle to advance to varsity is all about financing. Suddenly, coaches must be paid salaries. State-of-the-art equipment is a must. Resources must be dedicated to nationwide recruitment, and the cost of travel makes financial figures skyrocket.
“I would love to have more varsity sports,” Martin told The Michigan Daily in 2007. “It’s not a matter of wanting to have new teams or not. It’s a matter of if you can afford them or not.”
But men’s lacrosse — or men’s rowing — doesn’t have a chance of making varsity unless there is a women’s team to rise up with it.
Women’s club hockey is a team that would clearly benefit from increased financial support — three practices a week and weekend games bring the team’s ice bill up to around $18,000 a year.
The Athletic Department denied varsity status to women’s hockey when it applied to move up along with the men’s soccer program a decade ago, and women’s water polo got the nod instead.
Since then, the club has chosen to remain at the club level because of the demanding club varsity requirements.
Increasing the required amount of practice hours from 10 to 20 would likely place strain on team members’ academic lives, too — not to mention their wallets with double the ice costs.
“It’s honestly a lot of work,” said Rachel Reuter, the women’s club hockey president. “It’s something we’d definitely like to see in the future, but there are other impediments in the way with the varsity boys and Yost (Ice Arena) being such a small rink — it would be hard to get the ice time that we’d need to become a varsity sport anyway.”
But the women’s team wouldn’t mind some of the tangible benefits it’d receive by gaining club varsity or varsity status. Reuter would love to see the women’s team use the well-equipped weight room on the second floor of Yost and get its own locker room — hockey skates and pads don’t belong in dorm closets.
SHARING MORE THAN A SPORT
The University’s high-achieving club sports are adept at claiming resources for themselves where they can find them.
While there isn’t a varsity equivalent of club sports like roller hockey or table tennis, there are plenty in more mainstream sports. Name a varsity sport, and it’s almost guaranteed that a sister team exists on the club level.
Varsity programs help club teams survive and improve by sharing facilities and equipment — two of the most expensive factors for all club sports.
The men’s rowing club team has access to the women’s varsity team’s indoor rowing machines to train in the winter. Club sports men’s water polo and women’s synchronized swimming practice in Canham Natatorium, home to the varsity swimming and diving teams and women’s varsity water polo. The varsity baseball team allows its club equivalent to use Ray Fisher Stadium for tryouts.
Jendryka attributes the sharing atmosphere in part to the fact that some athletic department employees in charge of facilities came from the Rec Sports department, so they understand how helpful access to top-notch facilities can be for club or even intramural athletes.
But the exchange between varsity and club sports doesn’t stop at equipment — there are sometimes player tradeoffs, too.
“I wouldn’t say it’s common, but it’s certainly not uncommon,” Jendryka said. “We’ve had a fair number of varsity athletes drop down just because they don’t have the time to dedicate. They can’t do that many hours outside the classroom, the travel, the expectations.”
And it also works the other way. Jendryka said she has received phone calls and rushed e-mails from club presidents who have to send her new contact information for their teams because some their players have made the varsity squad.
One of the best examples of the club-to-varsity bond is the men’s soccer program. Each season, Burns, the men’s varsity coach, attends club tryouts to scout out the talent level on campus. Often, he’ll invite a player or two to try out for varsity, and he will sometimes have some of the top club athletes train with the varsity squad all winter in preparation for preseason tryouts. The club and varsity teams also square off every spring in an exhibition game, giving Burns yet another chance to recruit.
But the relationship between varsity and club teams in the same sport isn’t always smooth. For the women’s club hockey team, it’s a challenge to earn respect while playing in the same arena as the men’s varsity hockey team. Part of the problem could be that men’s coach Red Berenson has never been a vocal proponent of the women’s club program.
“I don’t get a sense that there’s any active engagement, and I don’t get a sense that there’s any active disapproval,” said Susan McDowell, long-time staff advisor for the women’s club team. “I don’t think we matter, and I don’t mean that meanly. I just think his primary focus is on the success of his men’s varsity program. … It’s not the world’s most perfect situation, but I think that’s where it is.”
THE PAY OFF OF CLUB SPORTS
Along the way, though, something happens to a team as it battles for respect on the field and in the Michigan Athletic Department: teammates bond, leaders emerge and individuals learn to reap the most from a difficult system.
Paruk, the women’s Ultimate Frisbee captain, described the challenge of scheduling classes around practice during the school year and planning vacations around summer tournaments. But her eyes lit up most as she spoke of the relationships she has formed with other players on the team.
Players from each competitive club team, from women’s hockey to men’s rowing, spoke of the close-knit ties between members of their programs. From fundraising to recruiting, the added obstacles club teams face give them an “us against the world” mentality.
“I think some of those struggles make the successes even sweeter,” Jendryka said.