Maine club sports teams strive for survival and love every minute

When Olivia Bourque became president of the University of Maine club women’s basketball team, she faced a long to-do list.

A team had to be built, a schedule drawn up and exercises carried out. But unlike NCAA-level teams, she had little staff support — it was mostly her team’s responsibility.

Club sports are becoming increasingly popular in Maine colleges. They fit between the NCAA-level teams 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, practicing and coaching players before joining the National Club Basketball Association for that season.

Maine has 19 players, 15 of whom are allowed to play in a game under league rules.

Bourque has her hands full as club president. “At first I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but then I quickly realized that it takes a whole village and the team was more than willing to help where they could,” she said.

There is a notable distinction between club and intramural sports. Both are student-led, but club teams mostly compete against other schools and are more formal and competitive, aligning closer to collegiate teams.

When asked about the biggest challenge of starting a club sport from scratch, Bourque was blunt: everything.

“We didn’t know where to start. As we did this, there were several meetings about the do’s and don’ts, fundraising, other club sports (operations), volunteering, student administration, money, travel – that was the most overwhelming time of forming the club.”

That doesn’t even include the time it takes.

“You have to spend so much time planning events, basketball games, volunteering and fundraising,” Bourque said. In recent months, she has perfected the balancing act of spending time and, as she describes it, the mixture of serious competition and having fun in club sport.

“At the end of the day it’s a club team and everyone is there to have fun, make friends and play basketball.”

An hour away at Colby College in Waterville, Jackie Ko is president of the women’s club rugby team and oversees 35 regulars, 25 of whom are eligible for a matchday list. Sixteen of their players are newcomers, an unusual – but welcome – collection of newcomers.

Few players had any rugby experience and some had no sporting experience at all before joining the team – one of Colby’s 27 club teams. A handful had competed in sports such as basketball, hockey, soccer, or track and field, and others were on 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.

Members of the Colby’s Club women’s rugby team pose for a photograph at a playoff game. Photo courtesy of Jackie Ko.

Administrative work is also Ko’s biggest challenge, although rugby has been offered in 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 athletic department on budgeting and game logistics (travel, lodging and meals for street games, setting a tee time and ensuring referees are available for home games) with the events departments and facilities around the team meeting room and coordinate games, and with league and college officials to ensure all required documentation is submitted.

“All in all, it can be difficult to keep track of administrative tasks while playing rugby and being a student at the same time,” said Ko.

Most of the fundraising to support Colby’s $30,000 operating budget for the fall and spring rugby seasons comes from the Friends of Colby rugby group, which is largely made up of former players. The college provides a full-time athletic trainer and leaves travel and equipment expenses to the team’s fundraising.

After a $2,500 contribution from his university to cover jerseys and basketballs, the UMaine team has to come up with $500 during the offseason — although it typically nets $600 to $800 — to cover travel expenses.

Busy but convenient schedules

During the season, UMaine trains for two hours every two weeks and takes an hour every Wednesday to volunteer at a local elementary school basketball program. Weekends contain a doubleheader series, at home or at Massachusetts opponents.

For Colby Rugby the season schedule consists of four or five weekly training sessions depending on the weather and includes film study sessions on Mondays to review how the team can improve after their last weekend game.

Street games make for long days. Colby’s next road game last fall was an hour away from Bowdoin College in Brunswick. The furthest it was a five hour trip 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 would depart in the afternoon or evening before road games, this season in rented vans, because the journeys were too far for traditional carpooling. With much of the roster hailing from across New England, the players stayed with their teammates’ relatives, with the exception of their first two-day playoff experience when they stayed at a hotel.

The UMaine team, meanwhile, typically leaves Orono for the doubleheader around 7am on game days before returning that night. Each of his three road trips to Massachusetts this season lasted about four hours. Occasionally, the team will add a team-binding component after a doubleheader.

Rugby’s off-season allows for around four to six weeks of recovery from the fall season before spring strength and conditioning begins. Captains practice early in the year until spring drills can begin with outdoor trainers.

“Because rugby is so physically demanding, the bonds between our team are incredibly strong,” said Ko. “I think rugby provides the environment to build our confidence and develop physical and mental strength that we will have for the rest of our lives.”

The UMaine off-season team is balanced between practices, fundraising and community service, including kindergarten and first grade programs, and with the local YMCA.

So why step up with all the administrative work – from fundraising to logistics?

“I wanted to do more for this team that continues to do so much for me, which is why I decided to play a role in leading the team,” said Ko.

For Bourque, her biggest fear was not having a strong turnout or support.

“They could easily have said it was messy and too difficult to keep up, but I was very lucky to have these girls,” Bourque said. “You’ve had my back from the start. They are the reason the challenging moments weren’t so bad and were worth it.”

That makes the chaos manageable.

“It’s a sense of pride to say, ‘I’m the president of the women’s rugby team in Colby,'” said Ko. “I wanted others to feel as inspired and connected to the team as I did.”

George Harvey is the multimedia editor for The Maine Monitor. Reach him via email: [email protected]


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