Varsity sports remain popular, but university club sports are showing some heart
Ashley Bocast was just looking for a place to unleash her inner aggressor. The Chico native played a few unconventional sports in her day, wrestling with the boys at Chico and Marsh junior high schools, followed by more grappling and some lacrosse at Chico High.
Then the Chico State’s women’s rugby team found her.
“I just really like the physical nature that comes with sports,” said Bocast, a Chico State senior. “Unfortunately, there are not a lot of girls’ sports out there that allow you to have that form of aggressiveness without getting penalized. Rugby just really opened up that opportunity to be aggressive and have fun doing it and not get in trouble for hitting someone.”
Physically, Bocast isn’t all that imposing—unless you’re incapacitated by quick wit, an effervescent smile and a tightly wound, athletic body. Bocast has served as the women’s rugby team president for the past three years, running the team, more or less, on her own.
This is the essence of competitive recreational sports at Chico State. The rugby season ended at the Elite 8 last month in Albuquerque, N.M. Bocast and the Wildcats were ousted by defending national champion Penn State, 38-21. Stanford ultimately beat the Nittany Lions to capture the women’s Division I title, 15-10.
Chico State’s club sports are racking up national championships quicker than their intercollegiate, or varsity, counterparts, and they’re one of the fastest growing aspects of university life across the nation. According to its Web site, Chico State currently fields 17 club sports and 13 varsity sports.
While administrators take care of travel, budget, scheduling and other logistics for varsity sports, for club teams, the president is responsible. That’s not including the work that goes in before a club even hits the field.
In order for a club sport to be a competitive entity, it must be recognized by the university. Each club president must fill out an application in the spring indicating the club’s operating budget, and answer questions about fundraising and the expected level of success for the following year. These are competitive sports clubs in every way. But unlike varsity sports, they can decide how bloodthirsty or passive they’d like to be, including where they will travel and against whom they will compete.
This knowledge of how a team is run provides them with an experience varsity players might not get. Bocast said this involves a lot of organization—paperwork and meetings, not to mention the additional phone calls and e-mails with members and other teams.
“I don’t think even my teammates have a clue how much time and effort go into just the day-to-day running of the team,” Bocast said. “It’s absolutely crazy how much goes into it. More so than any class I’ve taken, being president of the rugby team has probably given me more life and work experience.”
When Mary Wallmark began her tenure as Chico State’s recreational-sports director nearly six years ago, it was the first time the university hired someone solely as liaison between the administration and club teams.
If ever there was someone qualified to fill the post, Wallmark would be the one. The Chico State graduate played intercollegiate volleyball for the Wildcats, so she has the unique perspective of seeing things through the eyes of an administrator and competitive athlete.
“I was a varsity athlete and I couldn’t have told you what our budget was,” admitted Wallmark. “I just showed up and played.”
As with varsity sports, funding fuels competitive club teams. While larger universities back their club sports with massive amounts of university funding and alumni support, Chico State’s are handcuffed, to the point that the athletes themselves supplement some of their budgets out-of-pocket.
Bocast said the women’s rugby team fundraised $17,000 (the most of any Chico State club sport with the exception of men’s lacrosse) of its $29,000 operating budget for this season, in addition to doling out roughly a grand per player in out-of-pocket expenses.
“It would be nice to have some of the perks that come with varsity sports or other clubs that have alumni support such as Stanford,” said rugby player Monie Prieto, “where they’re able to build an entire world-class stadium.”
Expenses can range from steep to outrageous, like the $1,500 each member of the men’s lacrosse team forks over just to play. Ryan Funk, president of the men’s volleyball team, isn’t strapped to that extent, but he and his teammates still personally supplement the season’s expenses.
“Budget cuts definitely affect us and increase the out-of-pocket fees each team member has to pay,” Funk said.
Men’s volleyball competes both at the league level and nationally. This year, Chico State beat Utah State, Purdue and Loyola University to capture the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association Division I-AA gold bracket title in Dallas. The men’s volleyball club finished third five years ago and had a fifth-place finish two years ago.
Funk hopes increasing interest bumps his 18-man roster to two teams next year. The women’s rugby team has A and B sides. But the women’s lacrosse club, which finished fifth in the Western Women’s Lacrosse League this season (including a top-15 finish nationally out of 120-plus teams), fielded just more than a dozen players this year.
Funding woes aside, Wallmark hails club sports as “the great leveler.”
“As often as we say and hear it in sports, whoever has the heart and desire will come out on top,” she said. “We own a lot of other schools in California and have bragging rights over them.”
While desire may be fundamental at a competitive club-sports venue, it’s hard to believe that competitive collegiate sports everywhere aren’t performing at the same level.
Women’s rugby president Bocast has witnessed on-field indifference first-hand. While playing fully funded, intercollegiate field hockey at New York’s Division III SUNY-New Paltz, Bocast noticed a difference between some varsity and club sports.
“I found there were a lot of girls playing for reasons other than they loved the game,” she said. “And when you come to rugby, you have to love the game.”
Chico State’s women’s rugby team just completed its 10th season. After reaching nationals in 2000, the Wildcats brought home the championship in 2001. Chico State has been to nationals every year except 1999 and 2002 and reached the Elite 8 twice, including this year.
Prieto, who played rugby at Davis High, was urged by a rugby-playing friend at UC Davis to give the sport a try at Chico State.
“I was like, ‘You’re out of your mind, you could chip a nail doing that,’ “ said Prieto. “But I started playing and it brought out such a different side of me. It’s empowering to play because you get to experience that aggressiveness. It’s unlike any other sport.”