To underscore that club sports at TCNJ are not on the level of the varsity teams, consider the women’s club soccer team’s trip to Penn State in October 2009.The student-athletes arrived at their hotel only to discover it was located in a remote area.
“We were all way too afraid to even get out of our cars,” senior Allison Greer remembers. “So we ended up calling an alumna, a girl who goes to Penn State for grad school, and all 25 of us slept on her floor.”
Now about that refund from the hotel?
“We didn’t even bother,” Greer laughs, cherishing the road trip.
Fortunately, many other aspects of club sports resemble the varsity level, making the experience of competing in them rewarding for the 732 students who play on TCNJ’s 23 club teams.
In many ways, club sports are a junior version of the varsity, with student-athletes generally participating in several practices and one or two games or competitions per week. The club teams have seasons in both the fall and spring semesters—with one semester usually more important than the other—but the weekly time commitment is less than varsity athletics, although much greater than what’s expected of students competing in intramurals on campus. Plus, like the varsity teams, the club student-athletes welcome the chance to play against other colleges.
“It’s definitely more competitive than an intramural sport,” says junior Matt Walsh, who is co-president of the baseball club. “But we take it a little bit less seriously and have more fun than, say, a varsity sport.”
The club sports programs are directed by Deborah Simpson ’84, MEd ’87, who is in her 25th school year at TCNJ. There was only one club sport—men’s ice hockey—when she took over. Some club sports, such as soccer, basketball, and baseball, are offered on the varsity level, but others, like bowling, crew, rugby, volleyball, men’s ice hockey, men’s lacrosse, flag football, and ultimate frisbee, are not, making the club level the highest on campus. The cheer and dance teams at varsity events are actually club sports.
“The club team is basically for the students who have enjoyed the particular sport that they have played in high school or summertime or wintertime,” says Simpson. “They don’t want all that stress of being a varsity athlete, so they join a club team.”
Club sports participants must be full-time students, and some of the leagues require that they have a 2.5 GPA or better. No one is cut from a club team, and all are allowed to miss practices and games for academic reasons or other commitments.
Each club sport has at least one student president on the executive board; some have student coaches, others have volunteer coaches from the local community, including alumni. The College’s Student Finance Board and each team’s fundraising efforts pay for many expenses with minimal costs to the participants, except for the more expensive sports like ice hockey and crew.
Most participants have a long background in their respective sports. Some had unrealized dreams of playing on the varsity team; others were on varsity only to find the experience not to their liking and switched to the club team.
Still others, like sophomore Allie Pungello, make the rare move from club to varsity. Pungello joined the women’s club soccer team during her freshman year after learning about the program at the Student Activities Fair in 2010. Midway through October, the varsity team needed a backup goalie, and Pungello impressed head coach Joe Russo MEd ’82 enough to be elevated to the squad.
“There’s definitely a difference there,” Pungello says. “There’s a lot more fitness, they’re more technically skilled (on varsity). But what I found is there are a good handful on club who used to play varsity, so it’s not like a huge, drastic difference.”
Then there is a sport like rugby. Most of the team members don’t have a background in it before college. Senior Rebecca Keating played basketball and swam in high school, then joined intramural softball as a TCNJ freshman. But she found she wanted something more intense and joined the women’s rugby club as a sophomore.
“What I love about the club sports is that it opens up a great opportunity for girls who haven’t played in high school to want to come out and be a part of something in college. And it also adds a great aspect to social life,” says Keating, the team president. “In addition to being teammates on the field, a lot of the girls are very close off the field.”
The College’s varsity teams compete on the NCAA Division III level and usually in the New Jersey Athletic Conference, but TCNJ’s club sports teams participate against schools on all levels, regionally and nationally. Among the highlights of the 2010–11 academic year was TCNJ’s club softball team defeating Southern California at the national tournament in Columbus, GA, and the women’s soccer team tying the University of Texas at nationals in Phoenix.
The men’s ice hockey club, which plays home games in nearby Lawrenceville, is a member of the Great Northeast Collegiate Hockey Conference alongside the likes of Princeton, Penn, Rutgers, and Seton Hall. The program has developed so much that it attracted former player Andrew Ferencevych ’07 back as an assistant coach four years after he graduated. He’s thrilled to help make the club experience as good for others as it was for him.
“There’s a lot of team involvement,” says Ferencevych, now an attorney in Ewing. “Since the season length compares to a varsity program, and we still play for a division title and there are still playoffs, all of that is a competitive atmosphere.”
Of course, no matter the fun, the College can’t guarantee its club sports participants they won’t be spooked by hotels in remote areas. But as Greer has learned as co-president of the successful women’s soccer club, the chance to keep playing a sport with a varsity-like feel makes it all worthwhile.
“It’s been the perfect balance for me, because I did not want to give it up, but varsity would have been a huge time commitment,” she says. “It’s really what you make it. If you want to play, if you want to be dedicated, then it can be your main thing at college.”