The way college sports started is the way it still is for hundreds of students who pay to play. They call their own shots, and there’s nothing casual about the competition.

Virginia Ariail is pleased to say she hasn’t broken any bones yet in her own body, but last fall, at a match with Appalachian State, she did manage to break the nose of an opposing player who was 6-foot-2, 220 pounds. That’s about twice Ariail’s body mass. “It didn’t hurt me at all,” said the sophomore from Rockingham of her rhinoplastic tackle, “but my knee went right into her face. It was pretty bad.”

In 2005, five of Ariail’s teammates on the Carolina women’s rugby team suffered torn ACLs, although as of last fall, the club had tallied only one such tear in ’06. Her sister, Dorothy ’04, had a promising career, too – until she broke her collarbone as a freshman and hung up her cleats.

Perhaps all of this bone-crushing should come as no surprise; as Ariail understatedly points out, this is no girly-girl sport. What is remarkable, however, is that she and her 30 teammates actually pay money, in the form of annual dues, to put their bodies through such regular torment. Like all of the athletes who make up UNC’s 53 sport clubs, rugby players earn no scholarships, attract few if any fans to their contests and approach their sporting endeavors with one novel concept in mind: the joy of play.

On any given night as the sun goes down over campus, when most varsity athletes are heading home from practice or to dinner, the lights come on at Ehringhaus and Hooker fields, the gyms fill at Woollen and Fetzer and the pools populate at Bowman-Gray and Koury Natatorium. Seventeen hundred student-athletes of a different sort pull on their cleats, their tennis shoes or their Speedos and, for two or three hours, practice as they once did at childhood parks or on neighborhood streets, calling their own shots.

On the weekends, with no TV cameras or press boxes or NCAA presence looming in the wings, they compete against other universities while wearing Carolina colors, something most never dreamed of doing. Along the way, they learn to represent UNC within an organizational model that requires community service, fundraising and self-sustaining leadership, blending timeless life skills with old-fashioned athletic purpose.

And yes, they also win national championships.

Old sport, new outlook

When he was 11, Adrian Cummins made the Barbados national swim team. Natural thing, to learn to swim when you grow up on an island, but Cummins and water had a relationship that transcended backstrokes and butterflies. In the off-season, to keep in shape, he and his teammates played water polo, and Cummins was so talented at that sport that he also made its junior national team three years later, then joined the Barbados national water polo team at age 15.

But when it came time to go to college, he wasn’t looking for a school where he could play water polo so much as he was looking for a different island. “My criterion was that I wanted to be two plane flights away from home,” he says. “I felt like I needed a change.”

Cummins had his eye on the East Coast – far, but not too far from home – even though virtually no varsity water polo teams existed from Maine to Florida. When he chose UNC, he figured he’d hang around Chapel Hill for two years, maybe compete for the varsity swim team and then transfer to a school that played varsity water polo for the remainder of his college career.

Then, two months after landing on campus as a freshman, he discovered the club water polo team. And that was that. “I just overheard a couple of people having a conversation about it,” said Cummins, who is now a senior. “I didn’t even know it existed.”

Not surprisingly, sport club water polo was a whole new ball game for a guy who was accustomed to competing against some of the world’s best players. At Carolina, the water polo squad doesn’t bother with tryouts; anyone who wants to play, beginner or otherwise, is welcome – as long as they can swim, of course. Cummins, at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, was clearly physically superior to his teammates, and he certainly had more skill. But the biggest adjustment for the Olympic hopeful was in attitude, a kind of reversal of all he’d ever been taught, all most elite athletes have ever known.

“What used to frustrate me initially is that some people would come to practice late or not take it as seriously as I did,” he said. “On the national team, the ultimate goal is to win whatever competition you go to. But here, the goal is to enjoy the sport. This is supposed to be fun. And that’s been good for me, just to be able to enjoy water polo without worrying about outcome.”

Sometimes, the outcome takes care of itself, as in 2004 when Carolina won the Atlantic division championship for collegiate club water polo and finished ninth at the national championships. That was a good time. But last fall, when the team went 0-8 and lost the fourth-place game at the division tournament? Well, now Cummins could say that that was fun, too.

He has the Barbados national team for fierce competition. He has his Carolina teammates for something else – they taught him to remember what he liked about water polo in the first place.

“The majority of what I like about playing here is the lasting relationships I’ve formed,” Cummins said, “not just in water polo, but with people from other clubs at UNC.”

That’s a refrain you’ll hear often when you speak with sport club athletes. Luke Russ started playing ice hockey in Connecticut when he was 6 and later traveled to New York, Boston, Chicago and elsewhere with a competitive team in Charlotte. Like many of his teammates on Carolina’s club hockey team, he could have played varsity at a Division III school.

“I didn’t think it would be worth it to go up to the middle of nowhere to play hockey,” Russ said, “when I could come here and it’s just as much fun.”

Not that Russ wasn’t serious about club hockey. He even called the coach at UNC before enrolling to chat about the team. Unlike in water polo, hockey’s greater popularity requires students to try out for one of its 20 roster spots – a roster filled with “kids who grew up up North,” Russ said.

“We’re the only hockey team at UNC,” Russ said. “So it’s not like we see ourselves as a mediocre club team. We definitely want to be competitive.”

But for a group of guys who came up getting their daily comeuppance against the boards, remembering that they’re not playing for the Stanley Cup, or even an NCAA title, isn’t always easy.

“The first two years I played,” said Russ, a senior who is also the club president, “it was a little more difficult to dial it back. There have been times when guys have yelled at each other after blowouts, and that’s when somebody steps in and reminds everyone that we’re just here to have fun, and that we’re a family.”

Dive in, find a home

One of the things that sport clubs do best is introduce students to an activity they never had a chance to experience before coming to Carolina. From handball to ultimate Frisbee, from cricket to roller hockey, UNC has one of the largest programs in the country – nearly twice that of many colleges. Even if you were the kid who didn’t make the grade in elementary school kickball, you might just wind up a collegiate all-American in disc golf.

Just ask Danny Monroe. The graduate student in biology admits he’s never been much of an athlete.

“Most sports, I don’t show any greater talent than the average person,” he said. “I’m not a very good runner, so that crosses out soccer or football. And I’m not a big guy. In high school, I was mediocre at everything.”

But during undergraduate studies at Virginia Tech, Monroe stumbled across a sport club called underwater hockey. It’s played on the bottom of a pool, using 14-inch long sticks and a three-pound puck, and has its origins in England, where scuba divers played matches to stay in shape. The athletes wear dive masks, snorkels and fins. The game itself is much like ice hockey or soccer, only without the goaltender and no possibility for spectators – unless you want to be submerged in water with a foam finger and a hot dog.

“From the surface,” said Monroe, “it looks like a piranha feast.”

Monroe took to the unusual sport quickly. He might not have been the first kid picked for traditional sport teams growing up, but he had great vision, and it turns out that’s a crucial talent when you’re chasing a puck under water. So when he came to UNC for graduate work three years ago, Monroe began an underwater hockey club through the Office of Sport Clubs, which is part of Campus Recreation.

Now, both the underwater hockey club and that slow guy who never found a place in athletics have a national championship. Carolina took the collegiate title last year in only its second season when it defeated the University of Florida. The cross country club also won club nationals last spring, while other squads qualify and compete in club national championships each year.

The past two years, women’s rugby – another team you won’t find in most high schools – reached the sweet 16 of the college tournament. They began last fall ranked seventh nationally. In other words, they’re good. Really good. And competitive, because, as Virginia Ariail says, you have to be able to tackle someone bigger than you on a regular basis. But watching Ariail’s team warm up before practice on Ehringhaus Field is nothing like watching the warm-up of a varsity team whose well-compensated coach stands guard.

Remember the atmosphere that surrounded a great game of freeze tag in your backyard, afternoon light fading around you and your friends, laughter echoing in the fall air, no parents and no rules except the ones you agree upon? That’s the beginning of a club rugby practice. That’s why Virginia Ariail plays.

In the beginning, that’s why everyone plays.

“I needed to find something to get involved with, to find that group,” said Ariail, a three-sport star in high school who chose rugby over club volleyball because the latter required a formal tryout. “At a university this big, you need something to tie yourself in with other people.”

Rugby, like most other sport clubs on campus, practices two nights a week for two hours and plays matches on the weekends – sometimes locally, sometimes on the road. Ariail, as match secretary and a member of the sport club council, a peer group made up of representatives from each sport club that governs the entire program, puts in a lot of hours for a team that receives little public recognition.

“It is a big time commitment,” Ariail said. “But that’s the thing about our sport and other club sports – we’re very serious, and we want to do well, but if we don’t come to practice, we aren’t punished. We don’t have to get up at 5 a.m. and work out. Nobody has to play this sport. If you are on scholarship, you have to play that sport.”

Lately, their first-year coach, a volunteer who teaches at a local public school, has gotten a bit of the success bug. He’s been suggesting more practices, a trip to Ireland to compete this summer. And, well, that starts to sound like a different idea altogether.

“The point at which we’d say it’s becoming too much like a varsity sport is when we realize we don’t have time to do anything else outside of classes,” Ariail said. “We’re like, ‘You know, coach, we want to. We want to get better. But three practices a week is even more of a time commitment.’ ”

One cannot imagine a member of, say, the women’s varsity soccer team uttering even half of those sentences to Anson Dorrance ’74. But just as sport clubs choose their players and officers, they also hire and fire their coaches, who are expected only to provide guidance about team play, not team organization. Members decide how much is too much when it comes to time.

“We practice three nights a week, but usually Wednesday is our best night,” Monroe said. “People have other things going on, especially when basketball season starts, people want to watch those games. And then there’s Monday Night Football, and the football games on Sunday.”

When was the last time you heard a national champion admit he couldn’t go to practice because the Patriots were playing the Vikings?

Liz Shamseldin ’06 (MA) might not use the NFL as her reason for keeping sports low-key, but the volleyball veteran did find a home for three years on the women’s club team at Carolina while she worked toward her graduate degree in statistics. She was cut from her varsity team as a freshman at Sonoma State University in California, but when she was invited for another tryout two years later, she declined.

“My roommate played for the team, and she was miserable,” Shamseldin said. “There were these ridiculous practice schedules, she was traveling all the time, missing her classes. It was really hard for her to keep up. For me, it’s just something to balance out the intensity of my studies.”

Follow the leader

Sport clubs get the query so often that it’s No. 1 on its Web site’s frequently-asked-questions list: Yes, they are indeed very different from campus intramurals. Unlike in intramurals, clubs compete year-round and against other universities. They don’t give themselves clever team names such as Soaring White Chocolate, as one intramural basketball team did this year, and they have officers: a president, a vice president and a treasurer, in addition to the usual team captains. But the biggest difference may be that club sports have to work before they can play.

Stacy Warner ’01 (MA), who played varsity softball as an undergraduate at Lock Haven State College in Pennsylvania, had never heard of sport clubs before she took the job as director of UNC’s Office of Sport Clubs. But in her four years of giving students resources to be successful, she’s seen a refreshing side of college athletics.

“I always look forward to the day when someone calls to ask for a reference for someone who was a sport club officer,” she says, “because the amount of responsibility and initiative that they take on as students is pretty remarkable. I get to work with the cream of the crop.”

Sport club members are responsible for every aspect of their club’s existence, from equipment to game scheduling, from practices to travel arrangements. Their biggest task, however, might be coming up with the funds to travel to places like Guelph, Ontario, to compete, as the underwater hockey team did last year.

“We provide a very small amount of money, considerably small – roughly about $100,000 annually is distributed among 53 club teams,” said Warner. “They’re given a little bit of seed money to get started, but that doesn’t even come close to fully funding them. It encourages them to keep going, to find creative ways to be self-sustaining, which is the goal. They build these clubs from the ground up.”

Underwater hockey received about $800 of the $100,000 that was doled out this season, and that will help cover tournament entry fees. But they’ll supplement the rest with self-determined member dues that run a minimal $20 a semester, and by participating in sport clubs’ community service incentive program. Clubs have the opportunity to boost their budgets by holding community service projects of their choosing – this year, Monroe and friends worked a haunted house – and by donating platelets at UNC Hospitals in the month of November and participating in an annual 5K run for charity sponsored by the sport club council. The more they give to the community, the more funding they can receive from the sport club office, which gets its money from student fees.

“There’s an effective incentive plan, and that helps clubs make that money to play the sport,” said Monroe, whose club members keep 40 percent of what they earn from community service hours to help pay for their individual food and lodging during travel, something members of most sport clubs are responsible for paying out of pocket. “What I like about it is the way it separates the dedicated player from the purely recreational.”

But because clubs are limited by how much they can afford to travel (the women’s volleyball team qualified for nationals during Shamseldin’s second year, for example, but couldn’t find the money to pay for the trip), clubs also raise funds on their own. One of the most popular ways for student organizations of all stripes to earn money on campus is by taking tickets at the Smith Center door or clearing soda and popcorn from its stands following basketball games – a wonderful irony of club players cleaning up after the fans of scholarship athletes, like Cinderella watching the ball in her sooty clothing.

“We actually do bag-checking at basketball games,” Ariail says, as though she can’t wait to take up her post once more. “We just open up the bag and make sure they don’t have anything in there, which is kind of cool, because we get to keep any food they have.”

The man with the unenviable task of divvying up sport clubs’ meager budget this year is Luke Russ, who, as president of the sport club executive council, will help decide what to allot each club based on their individual budgets, fundraising efforts and participation in community service projects. (Russ’ own club may be the most expensive of the 53; while most groups get free playing space at campus facilities, ice hockey has to rent its time at the Triangle Sportsplex rink in Hillsborough at $750 per week – about the equal of underwater hockey’s entire budget. Just to be a member of the team, Russ and each of his teammates pay $700 annually in dues.)

“We decide who gets what,” said Russ of the entirely student-run, five-member executive council, which also hears complaints and disputes from all sport clubs regarding everything from field time to equipment problems.

Leadership comes in many forms when you’re a member of a sport club; it’s not just schedules and budgets. Cummins is president, player and coach of the water polo team, a trio of duties that not only has made him a better competitor but opened doors he’d never thought of before.

“I’ve learned that I have a lot of patience,” Cummins said, smiling. “A lot more than I thought I did. Coaching seems like a natural thing to me.” So natural, in fact, that Barbados made him the interim coach of the national under-17 women’s team when he went home last summer. Maybe, he says, after he’s finished with the professional water polo career he plans to begin later this year, he’ll help coach an NCAA team.

That’s something Danny Monroe would like to do himself.

“It’s really cool,” said Monroe of underwater hockey, “because it’s not like anything else. But it has a little bit of everything else. This is where the fun is.”

Translation: Eat your heart out, Roy. There’s a new national champion in town, and he’s wearing a snorkel.

Article Copyright 2007 UNC General Alumni Association

Published in Carolina Alumni Review, January/February 2007.