Amid COVID-19 uncertainty, USC club sports teams find power in being completely student-run

While some universities cut varsity programs, club sports are finding that the fate of their teams lies in their own hands.

As professional, and in some cases high school, sports return to fields and rinks across America, college athletics' next move remains a hot topic. Some universities have resorted to permanently cutting several of their varsity programs due to a lack of adequate funding. Most college football programs remain safe from termination with a potential spring season on the horizon. But aside from football, a haze of uncertainty looms. Lost in this college sports narrative though, is collegiate club sports teams.

It’s understandable. Nobody buys season tickets to a club sport. Small children don’t beg their parents for a replica club sports jersey from the school bookstore. Club athletes don’t surrender themselves to the same training schedules and team standards as varsity players.

But still, at USC, these aren’t just rinky-dink intramural games after class. There are over 50 club teams composed of about 1,600 undergrad and 300 grad students.

Although one might assume that club sports are more vulnerable to the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, USC’s student-run club sports teams are proving that for them, the fate of the program lies in the athletes' hands.

For Women’s Ultimate Frisbee, “the primary and most concerning thing is the lack of ability to recruit effectively,” junior Marie Zaragoza, co-president of the team, said. “Ultimate frisbee is a sport that not a lot of people come into college saying ‘Yes! I want to play frisbee in college!’”

Because of this, the team relies heavily on pulling people in through on-campus, in-person involvement fairs where current team members can sell potential recruits on the culture of the team more so than the sport itself.

According to Zaragoza, the competitive edge of the team may graduate with this year’s seniors.

“Without the ability to train current rookies, coupled with last year’s rookies only getting half a season before the pandemic hit, I think we’re probably going to be struggling in terms of developing those most basic skills,” she said.

There are, however, enough sophomore and junior players this year who are dedicated to the culture of the team to keep that aspect alive, she believes.

Organizationally separate but socially connected, the men’s ultimate frisbee team has held consistent Zoom team workouts and encourages everyone on the team to keep throwing the disc with whoever they live with –– whether that means roommates or family members. But, just as the entire country has recognized the limitations of a mostly-online life, that can only do so much. USC Men’s Ultimate has asserted itself as one of the most dominant club programs in the country, but virtual workouts and team meetings don’t build the chemistry and game IQ necessary to succeed on the field and remain among the nation’s elite.

The team has received some interest from incoming freshmen but it’s difficult to “get them into the fold” until the team gets the green light from the university to resume play, team president Evan Ostrowski said.

Financially, some members of the team may have difficulty paying their dues when the university clears the team to resume its normal practice and tournament schedule because of the recent economic downturn. Fortunately, though, the team ran a successful fundraising campaign last year which will “make sure everyone who wants to play frisbee can play frisbee, from a financial perspective,” he said. “We don’t want anyone’s personal finances to prevent them from playing.”

Ultimate frisbee hasn’t been the only club sport that has had a difficulty adjusting to the current climate. One week before USC classes moved online in March, Women’s Club Lacrosse had celebrated “rookie night,” an evening of team bonding and integrating new players into the social and athletic traditions of the team. The night before everything shut down, they practiced on Cromwell Field.

“We were all just starting to get to know each other and enjoying being on a team together,” Adzich said.

Then, instantly, it was all over.

Last year’s Women’s Club Lacrosse team consisted of mostly freshmen, one sophomore, one junior and five seniors. Now, with those five seniors having since graduated, along with the uncertainty created by the pandemic, retention and investment could be an issue on a team of mostly incoming sophomores whose rookie season was cut short, sophomore co-president Anika Adzich said.

Not being on campus this semester presents a huge hurdle for the women’s team.

“It’ll be hard to get anyone who wasn’t on the team before and isn’t a freshman to try new things,” Adzich said. “A lot of last year’s fall season was just letting girls come to practice and try it out in a very informal way.”

Even with COVID-19 lurking, club teams are remaining cautiously optimistic that they will have a season. Senior Jack Lulich, the USC Recreational Club Council President, said teams are currently submitting “Return to Play” plans. These outline how teams will safely practice and compete when allowed.

USC and many others within the Western Women’s Lacrosse League have reached out to each other to form a tentative game schedule including travel. This way, in case the usual spring season is authorized without much warning, they’ll be prepared.

Club sports do not have the budget or resources for rapid COVID-19 testing, extra field space and trainers like the Division I teams within the USC athletic department do. But there is a positive to not receiving benefits, and therefore restrictions, from the NCAA. Players are eager to practice, and since USC Hockey does not have to comply with NCAA protocols nor rely on the on-campus fields, the team hopes to get together for a casual practice or workout before the season starts.

Practice, though, is contingent on the few local rinks being open. Beyond that, ice time in Los Angeles, already among the most expensive in the country, is scarce under normal circumstances and will likely be even harder to come by during the ongoing pandemic.

“This adds an extra obstacle onto things that were already difficult in our organization,” team president, senior Jake Abene, said.

As far as a true season though, USC Hockey is subject to whatever the league as a whole decides. Although practices and games usually begin in September, the Pac-8 Conference has ruled out playing this semester and a condensed season beginning next semester is still up in the air.

“This has given us time to step back and reevaluate the organization and make some pretty major changes because last season wasn’t exactly what we had planned it to be,” Abene said. “This is giving us a fresh start in a way, gives us a break to step back and reevaluate our program.”

While student participation may dwindle in the short term following the COVID-19 pandemic, the long-term legacy of USC club sports doesn’t seem to be in danger.

“At least in terms of the team still existing and there still being a team of hellions,” Zaragoza said, her smile audible through the phone. “I’m not worried about that going away anytime soon.”