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Maine club sports teams toil to exist, and love every minute

Maine club sports teams toil to exist, and love every minute

When Olivia Bourque became president of the women’s basketball club team at the University of Maine, she found herself staring at a long list of responsibilities.

We had to build a team, make a schedule, hold training sessions. But unlike teams at the NCAA level, she had little personnel support — it was mostly her team’s responsibility.

Club sports are growing in popularity at Maine colleges. They fit between NCAA-level teams and 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 at the University of Maine at Orono, which has 28 club teams. The team spent the 2021-22 school year recruiting players, practicing and scrimmaging before joining the National Club Basketball Association for this season.

Maine has 19 players, 15 of whom are allowed by league rules to answer for the game.

Bourque has her hands full as club president. “At first I wasn’t sure if I could handle it, but I soon realized it takes a village and the team were more than willing to help wherever they could,” she said.

There is one significant difference between club and intramural sports. Both are student-led, but club teams generally compete against other schools and are more formal and competitive, approaching university college teams.

Asked about the biggest challenge of starting a club sport from scratch, Bourque was open: everything.

“We didn’t know where to start. When we did, there were several meetings about dos and don’ts, fundraising, other club sports (operations), volunteering, student government, money, travel — this was the most demanding time to start a club.”

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,” Bourque said. Over the past few months, she’s gotten better at balancing her time commitment and, as she describes it, mixing serious competition with the fun of club sports.

“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’s drive from 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 its players are freshmen, an unusual – but welcome – number of newcomers.

Several players had rugby experience and some had no track and field experience 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 were on competitive dance teams.

“Rugby is such a unique sport in 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.

A group photo of the women's club rugby team at Colby College.

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

Administrative work is also a primary challenge for Ko, 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 budgeting and game logistics (travel, lodging and meals for road games, arranging kickoff times and making sure umpires are available for home games), with the events and facilities departments to coordinate area for team and game meetings, and with league and college officials to ensure all necessary paperwork is filed.

“Overall, it can be difficult to stay on top of 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, which is made up mostly of former players. The college provides a full-time athletic trainer, leaving the cost of travel and equipment to fundraising by the team.

After a $2,500 contribution from their university to cover jerseys and basketballs, the UMaine team must raise $500 in the offseason — though it typically makes $600 to $800 — to cover travel.

Busy but favorable schedule

During the season, UMaine holds biweekly two-hour practices and sets aside an hour each Wednesday to volunteer with a local elementary school basketball program. The weekends feature doubleheader series, either at home or against opponents in Massachusetts.

For Colby rugby, the in-season schedule consists of four or five practices a week, depending on the weather, and includes film studio sessions on Monday to see how the team can improve on their last weekend game.

Road games make for long days. The closest road game for Colby last fall was an hour away at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. The furthest was a five-hour trek 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 in the afternoon or evening before games, in rented vans this season because the trips were too far for a traditional get-together. With much of the roster hailing from throughout 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, usually leaves Orono around 7 a.m. on game days for a doubleheader before returning that night. Each of the three trips this season took about four hours, to Massachusetts. Occasionally a team adds a team bonding component after a double shot.

The rugby off-season allows for about four to six weeks of recovery from the fall season before spring strength and conditioning begins. The captains hold practices at the beginning of the year until spring practices with the coaches 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 programs for kindergarteners and first graders, and with the local YMCA.

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

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

For Bourque, her biggest fear was that she wouldn’t have a strong response or support.

“They could have easily said it was chaotic and too hard to follow, but I was very lucky to have these girls,” Bourque said. “They had my back from the very beginning. They’re the reason the challenging moments weren’t so bad and make it worth it.”

This is what makes the chaos bearable.

“There’s a sense of pride when I say, ‘I’m the president of the women’s rugby team at Colby,’” Ko said. “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. Contact him by email:

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