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|Sam Litman and the UMD Men's Lacrosse team. Sam is the head coach and club alumni.|
Sam Litman started college as a Bulldog and would graduate a Gopher, or so he thought. The lifelong Duluthian planned on staying in his hometown his freshman and sophomore years and then transferring to the Twin Cities. Fourteen years later, he's still on campus.
During the dark winter days of his freshman year the beacon of lacrosse lit up his UMD experience and that was that. "I had no intention of staying at UMD for four years, but once I started playing lacrosse I said, 'There's no way I'm leaving here.' Because of the connections I made through the sport, there was no place else I wanted to be."
Sam is now the coach of UMD's top-ranked lacrosse team. The program has grown since he first donned his helmet, in part because lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in the country. The other component is the surge in UMD's Sport Clubs. Since 2011, the athletes on the Rec Sports teams have gone from marginalized to idolized. Here's why -
Derek Donlevy, Sport Club director, says that 11 teams have qualified for Nationals in the last three years: Alpine Ski, Broomball, Cycling, Dance Team, Men's Lacrosse, Men's Rugby, Men's Ultimate, Women's Hockey, Women's Lacrosse, Women's Volleyball, and Wrestling. Of those 11 teams, three won national championships during the last 16 months; the Dance Team won two years in a row, and last December the Men's Rugby team beat Salisbury University 31 to 5 to win their first national championship, naming UMD captain Blake Martin the most valuable player.
Derek simplifies the bevy of numbers, teams, and athletes into what he says are the four components of Sport Clubs: student development, competition, camaraderie, and physical activity. He says that these four things help people understand a program that is neither varsity nor intermural but, "...the mortar that goes in between the bricks of knowledge that happens in the classroom."
Binding classroom teaching with experiential learning is happening in the pool, ice rink, and field house and across the country as the Sport Club athletes gain skills that they hope will help after they trade their uniforms for graduation gowns.
|Travis Pedley pushes ahead of the competition as president of UMD's Cycling Club|
The logic is there, but it wasn't enough to put Allie Fischer's mom at ease when she found out her daughter would be playing rugby. "People don't hit each other harder than they want to be hit," Allie assured. The forward invited her watch a game and said that Mom left shaking her head in confusion, but is no longer worried that Allie would be pummeled. The forward's fast, she has to be. Allie explains that forwards make up the scrum that tries to push each other and try to get the ball. This line is usually larger than the speedsters in the back line, but Allie is an anomaly, she's small.
Her chosen field is a bit of an anomaly, too. The anthropology major realizes her post-graduation path isn't as clear as it is for those with degrees in things like engineering or education, and thinks that time spent seeking the ball pay off as she seeks a career. "I have to look for a job that doesn't have a particular pathway, so my extracurricular activities need to be unique enough to speak for themselves."
Travis Pedley doesn't have to worry about getting tackled, but the Sport Club Cycling Team captain shares Allie's career concerns, which are alleviated through his participation. "From a leadership side, I've gotten a lot out of it that future employers will be looking for. From a recreation side, it's great being able to be fulfilled as an athlete." Beyond the leadership experience, the mechanical engineering major is also testing products that he hopes to someday improve. Product design is his career goal, especially in anything related to recreation.
Beyond competing, Travis, Allie, and other Sport Club (usually coach-less) athletes have a lot more on their to do lists. "Being able to lead your peers, being able to communicate with your peers, being able to plan a budget, we're giving them these skills through Sport Clubs," says Derek.
Sport Club teams aren't fully funded. A panel of their peers will listen to team representatives apply for finances. The panel divvies $40,000 among 20 teams. For example, the Men's Rugby team's budget is around $40,000. It will get about a tenth of it from the panel and fund raise for the rest in order to cover all expenses related to travel and tournaments. The Fighting Penguins have an extraordinarily strong core of alumni support. On a personal level, team captain Blake Martin landed his internship at National Rural Health Resource Center through his relationship with a rugby alum, so he's especially appreciative of those positive connections.
The Thrill of the Victory, The Ability to Compete
On the rugby field, Blake is decidedly positive that he hates losing. He hates losing so much that as a mere sophomore he initiated a prolific recruiting program. "We only won one game my freshman year and I didn't want to lose anymore, so I started recruiting." Because of his efforts and their stellar seasons, The Fighting Penguins' roster has grown from 15 guys Blake's freshman year to 40 guys this year, including 13 freshman who are coming to UMD to play rugby.
Winning or losing, most Sport Club athletes say the simplicity of a chance to play appeals to them. They aren't interested in varsity athletics but want to keep their competitive edge sharp.
Men's Lacrosse is taking that competion up a notch, all the way to Division 1 level of intercollegiate athletics. Given UMD's size, the program could be Division 2 but chooses to play against Division 1 teams. Explains coach Sam Litman, "We want to play the best lacrosse possible." Playing the best is seeping into the next generation. Sam says that an impressive nine out of ten Minnesota high school state championships have been won teams coached by UMD alumni.
Hannah Daniel and the Women's Ultimate team. Front row: Grace Whiteford
Hannah Daniel transferred to UMD from Purdue her sophomore year and found that most people in her Chemical Engineering program already know each other and it was a little tricky making friends within her major. Luckily, she had a crew of Bulldogs awaiting her arrival. She had met the LakEffect team while cheering on her boyfriend's ultimate team the year before she moved to Duluth and was able to jump right in. "It's so nice to have a place to belong. Most of my close friends are on the ultimate team," Hannah says.
The LakEffect Ultimate team participates in tournaments nine weekends of the year and hold practices two or three times each week. They'll play in the field house through the winter and switch to the great outdoors after spring break. Of course, in Duluth "spring" is more of a definition than a description and there's usually snow on the ground, which doesn't bother Hannah in the least. "Facilities Management will plow Griggs Field for us to play until midnight. I love this! It's like magic after being cooped up all winter."
Blake, captain of the Men's Rugby team, agrees with the camaraderie component of Sport Clubs. "All my best friends are on the rugby team. My sister's going to UMD next year and I told her, 'Join a sport club. It doesn't matter what club, just join.'
These friendships on and off the field benefit UMD's students and impact UMD's enrollment. Explains Sport Club director Derek Donlevy, "Once they're here, they're going to stay here. They're involved and have connections to their friends."
Beyond retention, Sport Club is actually lending a hand to UMD's recruitment efforts. The Men's Lacrosse and Men's Rugby team actually host games in conjunction with Admissions. Perspective student athletes are invited to watch a game on Griggs Field and learn about UMD's academic offerings, all in one fell swoop. "We're creating an opportunity for students to come to campus and feel like they're part of UMD," says Derek.
This fall, 600 of those students will put on their Bulldog uniform. Their crowds may be a bit smaller than those of varsity sports, but, for the 21 Sport Club teams at UMD, the value lies in the intangibles happening within.
Watch the Men's Lacrosse team take on the Cal Poly last season
Story by Lori C. Melton, August 2014
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