In a Major League Soccer stadium outside Philadelphia last June, The Claremont Colleges men’s club rugby team won a national championship.
The title in the National Small College Rugby Organization men’s 7s – a seven-player variation of rugby – and a 2017 national championship in the traditional men’s 15s are the latest highlights for the Claremont club. The perennial contenders have reached the 15s title game three years in a row, and the 7s team added top 10 finishes in 2015 and ’16.
Playing in front of thousands of fans and occasionally in games that are televised on the Pac-12 Network or even NBC, “gives you the experience of almost being at a Division I level,” says Spencer Swensrud ’19, a four-year rugby player and a former cornerback on Pomona-Pitzer’s NCAA Div. III football team. The women’s rugby club is a force too, reaching the USA Rugby College Div. II national championship game last May before finishing second.
This is in addition to the 21 NCAA Div. III teams Pomona fields with Pitzer College and a Pomona-Pitzer intramural program that draws close to 1,000 participants in more than a dozen leagues and tournaments. Simply put, there is no shortage of opportunities for Pomona students to be athletes.
“For me my first year, it was a place for me to go and it gave me a purpose and an identity,” says women’s rugby player Elise Kuechle ’21, a former ballroom dancer and basketball player who took up rugby after arriving on campus. “It gave me something to do athletically, which is so important for my mental health, just going to run around a field for two hours, be outside and watch the sun set.”
A Middle Ground
Club sports fall somewhere between the demands of NCAA competition and the casualness of intramural sports. The 5C women’s basketball club advertises itself as a team “for serious players looking for more flexibility.”
Although the competitions with other colleges sometimes include such powers as UCLA or USC and can be intense, the practice and game schedules are lighter – and there is more emphasis on fun and student-led programs. Team dinners and club Facebook pages are common.
“You meet people you’d never have an opportunity to encounter, like one of my captains is an econ major at Pitzer,” says Shaheed Muhammad ’21, a player on the men’s volleyball club. “We have numerous people from Harvey Mudd. It’s just really cool to be able to find new people who have similar interests although they go to different schools and have completely different lives.”
In an example of the spirit of fun, the teams pick their own nicknames. So instead of Sagehens, there are Braineaters – that would be the men’s Ultimate team, a sport often known as Ultimate Frisbee – along with the Greenshirts, the women’s Ultimate team. There are Lions (men’s rugby), Foxes (women’s rugby), Staghens (men’s basketball), Weasels (women’s basketball), Kangaroos (men’s volleyball) and more.
Less Familiar Sports
Ultimate, a sport that is played with a flying disc and includes elements of soccer, football and basketball, is popular for women and men.
“I think coming in as a freshman, I was looking for community,” says Ella Scudder-Davis ’21. “I love the sport of Ultimate. It has a special thing called the ‘Spirit of the Game’ that pretty much means you treat everyone well instead of hurting each other or doing whatever it takes to win.”
That doesn’t mean they don’t win. The men won a national title in 2011, and both clubs were nationally ranked last season. Jeremy Snyder ’19 has played Ultimate since he was a freshman in high school, but he says many players are new to the sport.
“You’re getting exercise, and it doesn’t feel like a chore,” he says.
Some clubs are co-ed, including equestrian, powerlifting, and a ski and snowboard club that will compete in the U.S. Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association for the first time this season.
The effort to add ski racing was spearheaded by Jay Pier ’21, just three years after Jessica McKenzie ’19 and Will Conway ’18 revived the dormant club. The most popular outing is a massive two-day trip to Mammoth Mountain for 100 or more students over the fall semester Reading Days, with some students even working on papers at night, après-ski.
“You’ll be back by Friday night,” Pier says. “You study on the weekend.”
The equestrian team has access to horses at a stable in Norco, and though the majority of students pay out of pocket for lessons and competition classes, the club tries to subsidize opportunities for students who otherwise could not afford to pursue the sport.
“For a lot of members, it’s the first time they’ve ever been on a horse,” says Tyler St. Bernard '20, a veteran equestrian. “With our budget, we determine how many subsidies we will be able to offer for the upcoming year. We focus on giving access to a sport that is often unavailable to many due to costs.”
There are also sports some never imagined existed: Consider women's roller derby.
“I discovered it at the Turf Dinner,” says Olivia Zhang ’19, a student from China, referring to the annual 5Cs outdoor dinner and club fair in the fall where most teams recruit new members. She quickly fell in love with the sport and is fascinated by the juxtaposition of a rough physical sport often played by women wearing short-shorts and fishnet stockings.
“It was completely unexpected to combine that kind of stigmatized femininity with a strong sport where women are playing contact and are the main gender in the sport,” says Zhang, who discovered a published academic paper on the subject.
A Break from Studying
Like others, Zhang says playing a club sport provides a relief from the rigors of academics.
“I think although it takes up time, after I practice I feel really refreshed and de-stressed, because you’ve just spent two hours hitting people,” she says with a laugh.
Giselle De La Torre Pinedo ’21, says competing on the powerlifting club has added benefits, and she had never been an athlete.
“I was a bookworm. The only competitions I did were academic,” she says. “I think there’s always been a stigma against women lifting,” she notes, adding that even her parents where initially opposed. “But it’s very empowering to be able to go into the gym and say, you know what, I am this strong. I can do this by myself.”
Her newfound strength comes in handy for her work as the head student manager at the Coop Fountain – and when moving her own stuff.
“My mom came to visit and we were moving dorms, and she was having trouble carrying things, and I said, ‘See, this is why I lift.’” she says.
Deadlifting 172 pounds on a final attempt in competition has a thrill of its own.
“It’s amazing,” she says. “You just feel powerful.”