When Olivia Burke became the president of the women’s club basketball team at the University of Maine, she faced a long to-do list.
There was a team to build, a schedule to make, practices to run. But unlike teams at the NCAA level, she had little staff support — it was mostly her team’s responsibility.
Club sports are becoming increasingly popular at Maine colleges. They fit in between the teams at the NCAA level and the far less formal intramural teams. They receive some financial help from their schools, but much of the work falls on the students themselves.
Women’s club basketball is new to the University of Maine at Orono, which has 28 club teams. The team spent the 2021-22 school year recruiting, training and scrimmaging before joining the National Club Basketball Association for this season.
Maine has 19 players, with 15 allowed by league rules to suit up for the game.
Bourke has his hands full as club president. “At first I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off, but then I quickly learned that it takes a village and the team were more than willing to help where they could,” she said.
There is one notable difference between club and intramural sports. Both are student-run, but club teams compete mostly against other schools and are more formal and competitive, aligning themselves more closely with university college teams.
Asked about the biggest challenge of starting a club sport from scratch, Burke was direct: everything.
“We didn’t know where to start. When we did this, there were several meetings about dos and don’ts, fundraising, other club sports (operations), volunteering, student government, money, travel – it was the most exciting time since the club started. ”
That doesn’t even include the time commitment.
“You have to dedicate so much of your time to planning events, basketball games, volunteering and fundraising,” Burke said. In the past few months, she has gotten better at balancing her time and, as she describes it, mixing serious competition with the fun of club sports.
“At the end of the day, this is a club team and everyone is there to have fun, make friends and play basketball.”
An hour away at Colby College in Waterville, Jackie Coe is president of the women’s club rugby team, overseeing 35 regular players, with 25 allowed on the game-day roster. Sixteen of her players are freshmen, an unusual but welcome addition to the newcomers.
Few players had any rugby experience and some had no sports experience at all before joining the team, one of 27 club teams at Colby. A few participated in sports such as basketball, hockey, soccer, or track, and others participated in competitive dance teams.
“Rugby is such a unique sport that there is no real blueprint for success. Regardless of your background or experience, you can learn the sport and contribute to the team,” Ko said.
Administrative work is also the main challenge for Coe, although rugby has been offered at Colby for years, first as a varsity sport and then as a club sport in recent years.
She and her vice president work with the college’s athletic department on game budgeting and logistics (travel, lodging and food for road games, setting a kickoff time and making sure referees will be available for home games), the event departments and facilities to coordinate space for team meetings and games, and with league and college officials to ensure all necessary paperwork is filed.
“In general, it can be difficult to deal with administrative tasks while playing rugby and being a student,” Ko said.
Most of the fundraising to cover Colby’s $30,000 operating budget for the fall and spring rugby seasons comes through the Friends of Colby Rugby group, made up mostly of former players. The college provides a full-time athletic trainer, leaving travel and equipment costs to the team’s fundraising.
After a $2,500 contribution from his university to cover jerseys and basketballs, the UMaine team must raise $500 in the offseason — though $600 to $800 is usually raised — to cover the trip.
Busy but favorable schedules
During the season, UMaine holds biweekly two-hour practices and takes an hour each Wednesday to volunteer with a local elementary school basketball program. The weekends feature a doubleheader, either at home or against opponents from Massachusetts.
For Colby in rugby, the in-season schedule consists of four or five practices a week, depending on the weather, and includes film study sessions on Mondays to review how the team can improve on their last weekend game.
Road games make the days long. The closest road game for Colby last fall was an hour to Bowdoin College in Brunswick. His farthest trip was five hours to Middlebury College in Vermont, with other road games 2½ hours to Endicott College in Massachusetts and 3½ hours to Bryant University in Rhode Island.
The team left the afternoon or evening before road games in rental vans this season because the trips were too far for traditional carpooling. With much of the lineup coming from all over New England, the players stayed with their teammates’ relatives, except for their first two-day playoff experience, when they stayed in a hotel.
The UMaine team, meanwhile, typically leaves Orono around 7 a.m. on doubleheader game days before returning that evening. Each of his three trips this season has been roughly four hours to Massachusetts. From time to time, the team adds a team bonding component after a doubleheader.
The rugby off-season allows for about four to six weeks of recovery from the fall season before strength and conditioning begins for the spring. The captains hold practices at the beginning of the year, while spring training with coaches can begin outdoors.
“Because rugby is so physically demanding, the bonds that form between our team are incredibly strong,” Ko said. “I think rugby provides an environment to increase our confidence and develop physical and mental strength that we will have for the rest of our lives.”
The UMaine team’s off-season is balanced between practices, fundraising and community service, including kindergarten and first grade programs as well as with the local YMCA.
So with all the administrative work – from fundraising to logistics – why bother?
“I wanted to do more for this team that continues to do so much for me, which is why I chose to be involved in leading the team,” Ko said.
For Burke, her biggest fear was not having a strong turnout or support.
“They could easily say it’s chaotic and too hard to maintain, but I’ve been extremely lucky with these girls,” Bourque said. “They had my back from the start. They are the reason the challenging moments are not so bad and worth it.”
Which makes the chaos manageable.
“There’s a sense of pride in saying, ‘I’m the president of the women’s rugby team at Colby,'” Coe said. “I wanted to make others feel as inspired and connected to the team as I did.”
George Harvey is the multimedia editor for The Maine Monitor. Contact him by email: [email protected]