ORONO, Maine — Upon arriving at the University of Maine in 2011, Conor Egbert initially thought he wanted to join a fraternity.
His roommate, who was from Spain, was interested in playing rugby, a popular sport in his country. Egbert had never even seen the game played.
Once exposed to it, he quickly developed a love for the sport. Three years later, Egbert is the captain of the UMaine men’s rugby club.
“We tried the fraternity thing, and we tried rugby. Rugby just filled the gap,” he said.
The rugby club has become an integral part of the educational experience for Egbert, a senior business management and marketing major from Framingham, Massachusetts.
It is one of 30 active sports clubs that will provide athletic and recreational opportunities for more than 700 students on the Orono campus this year.
“Some of them are very competitive, and some are more recreationally oriented,” said Jeff Hunt, UMaine’s director of campus recreation.
“It’s really about the students’ passion for their sport. Some of them come with it, and some of them discover it [here],” he added.
UMaine’s club sport offerings are diverse. They include everything from badminton to Ultimate Frisbee, along with more traditional sports such as baseball, softball, golf, ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer and wrestling.
The clubs with the most interest among students, based on the medical forms submitted by applicants, are the blade society (fencing, sabre) and Ultimate Frisbee.
Other offerings include Alpine and Nordic skiing, crew, cricket, cycling, figure skating, Shotokan karate, swimming, tennis and volleyball.
On a recent afternoon, more than 100 club sports participants were practicing simultaneously. The wrestling club was in the New Balance Student Recreation Center, while members of the men’s and women’s Ultimate Frisbee teams trained adjacent to the field hockey facility.
“We always have something like 80-90 kids come out to our first practice,” said men’s Ultimate captain Pat McGrath, a senior environmental sciences major from Weymouth, Massachusetts.
“This is probably the greatest group of committed kids that we’ve had,” he said of a group that will compete in a two-day tournament this weekend at UMass Dartmouth.
Anthony Panciocco, a junior journalism major from Danvers, Massachusetts, fits Ultimate into a busy schedule of classes and his duties as a sportswriter for the school newspaper, The Maine Campus.
“They adopt everybody who wants to play into their group,” Panciocco said. “We practice about three times a week, and we take it seriously but, at the same time, we have a lot of fun with it.”
At the south end of campus, the women’s and men’s rugby clubs, along with the women’s lacrosse group, went through their paces on Lengyel Field.
Despite the rigors of practicing three times per week and playing a match on Saturdays, the benefits encompass more than the fitness and competitive dynamics for Courtney McCrodden, a junior food science major from Holyoke, Massachusetts.
“It’s really fun. It actually helps with the de-stressing of the academic part of college life,” she said.
“I’m stressed, I come out here at rugby practice, I hit the pads,” McCrodden added, admitting she had no prior rugby experience before UMaine.
Students join UMaine sports club for a variety of reasons. For many, it is the continuation of an activity they had played competitively for many years. For others, it’s the chance to try something new.
UMaine sponsors 17 Division I varsity sports teams, most of which provide some scholarship assistance to many of its 400-plus student-athletes. However, most students lack the talent or commitment to year-round training to earn a spot on a varsity team.
“[In sport clubs], they can still be an athlete but not have to perform at that level and still enjoy what they’re doing,” Hunt said.
Through UMaine’s campus recreation, which also oversees intramurals, the university provides the clubs with facilities and minimal funding.
Hunt said the department’s budget for club sports is less than $17,000 and that a large percentage of that pays for athletic training for prevention and treatment of injuries and other health services provided through Eastern Maine Healthcare.
It also provides some clubs minimal assistance to cover the cost of tournament entries and officials fees.
Sports clubs frequently petition UMaine’s student government for funds to help defray costs. The student government budget is derived from fees paid by students.
Otherwise, the clubs must procure private funding, which Hunt said ranges from bake sales to sponsorships by local businesses.
“They make due with the minimum resources to survive,” said Thad Dwyer, UMaine’s assistant director for intramurals, who pointed out that UMaine’s clubs are at a disadvantage in terms of funding. “Other schools that most of these teams compete with, their [club sports] budget is over $100,000.”
Ice hockey is among the most expensive club sports as it requires frequent rink rentals and significant travel. UMaine’s club football team disbanded a couple of years ago in large part because of financial issues.
Most clubs collect dues to meet basic needs, including balls, equipment and uniforms, along with tourney and officials fees.
Women’s rugby charges participants $35 and the men ask for $40, while all players must pay $60 for insurance through USA Rugby.
The Ultimate clubs do not ask for money up front.
“The great thing about Ultimate is there’s not a lot of equipment you need, so we save a lot of money there,” said McGrath, who explained the club hosts a fall tournament to help defray its costs for the year.
Teams playing “away” matches must arrange for their own travel expenses and, if needed, lodging.
“The money [for gas, food and tolls] comes out of our own pocket,” McGrath said.
Ultimately, UMaine sports clubs thrive or fail based on the leadership and organization of those who become involved. Clubs that maintain consistently high participation and competitiveness are led by motivated students.
“[It comes down to] how assertive they are and how much they want to do,” Hunt said.
Successful club teams also often enlist the volunteer help of an alumnus or member of the community to serve as a coach or advisor. Each club also is assigned a faculty advisor.
“There’s no university job description for a sports club coach, but they can play a key role because they’re involved in a sport where there’s not a lot of expertise available on campus,” Hunt said.
“I find that success of a club is correlated to how much outside help they have,” added Dwyer.
Club sports enhance the education of many students, some of whom even choose UMaine based specifically on club offerings. Egbert has worked with local businesses to procure financial support, food and T-shirts.
“Being a business student, it’s encouraged to go out and find new ways to support yourself,” said Egbert, who also has gained experience in his negotiations with student government. “We work with local organizations to fund whatever we need.”
Sports clubs have established themselves as a key part of the educational experience for many UMaine students. Hunt said the activities bring students together and provide a strong connection to the school.
Hunt said one of the most rewarding dynamics is witnessing the growth of club sports participants, who also take care of business in the classroom.
“Students who have more to do get more done,” he said. “If they’re achievers in sport, they’re achievers academically.”
The offerings are diverse and constantly in flux, but UMaine welcomes any groups that can demonstrate significant interest and organization to apply for sports club status.
Egbert said for the athletic-minded student, club sports can play an important role in the overall experience at UMaine.
“Everybody played some kind of sport in high school, and you get to college, and you have that gap that needs to be filled by some sort of athletic fulfillment,” he said. “Club sports is a great way for students to find what they miss in sports but also at a really affordable level.”