Club teams deserve props too

NCAA Division I athletics are inarguably the highest level of college sports. An overwhelming majority of the best 18-22 year-old athletes in the United States compete in Division 1, creating the ultimate destination for aspiring young athletes to test their mettle against the best talent the nation has to offer.

But when a high school prospect is only good enough for Division 2 or Division 3 and picks a D-1 school instead for its academics or other factors, the dream of being an elite athlete goes on life support. Sometimes, the plug is pulled with hardly a query into any possibility of revival. It is not unusual for first-year students to arrive at college, realize all of the other open doors in front of them and turn away from their athletic careers.

Yet, for other one-time D-1 hopefuls, the dream lives on. These former prep stars who came up just short and their more mediocre counterparts who were never even close form a coalition of vagabond athletes known as club sports. For these persistent competitors told they weren’t fast enough, big enough or skilled enough, the club sports scene is like an angel, giving them all a second chance.

While the University is known for its tradition of success at the varsity level, the lesser known club teams are perhaps just as dominant. Club squads are often composed of terrific athletes who would have the roster cut for most other schools’ varsity teams in their respective sports. An upper echelon varsity athletics program lends itself to producing top-notch club teams, which is precisely the scenario unfolding at Virginia.

During my two-plus years with the Cavalier Daily, I have dutifully and happily reported on the varsity teams, just as everyone before me always did. But part of the legacy I want to leave is for the club teams to finally get their due as well. And now, they will.

For the sake of full disclosure, you should know I am an active member of the triathlon and cross country club teams. My time with those teams has shaped my college experience. My teammates are some of the most dedicated, driven and passionate people I have ever met.

They grind day in and day out, pursuing athletic greatness irrespective of what little recognition they will receive. Well, it’s time they all got their fifteen minutes of fame, even if they accepted they might never receive it.

If Division 1 is the highest tier of collegiate competition in most sports – some, like triathlon or cycling, are not sanctioned by the NCAA and therefore feature the best in the sport at the club level anyway – then club is the purest tier. Club athletes receive none of the scholarships, all-expenses-paid funding or full-time coaching their NCAA peers are accustomed to.

There is nothing less noble about varsity athletes as a result of the perks they are afforded, because they too pour their hearts into honing their craft in order to make the team and then stay on it. Nevertheless, the difference illuminates the unassuming nature of club competition, which requires student athletes to scrap for Student Council appropriations, hold fundraisers, coordinate their own travel and occasionally even coach themselves. A hefty workload is required just to be able step on the field, let alone perform at their best.

Going off of anecdotal evidence, the most common reason for high school student athletes becoming just students in college is the time commitment created by all the aforementioned tasks, as well as just training and competing. The time and energy investment it takes to be truly great at any endeavor, not just sports, is daunting. And many students at the University know only one way: to be the best in everything they do.

I have cross country teammates who run 80 miles a week. Some of my triathlete pals have put in as much as 20 hours of swimming, biking and running on a weekly basis. Why? Because they love it. Because they’re crazy. They know where they want to go, and they are willing to do what it takes to make it there.

When some dreams fade, others flourish. The triathlon team has produced two national champions in the past three years. The men’s cross country team has finished on the podium at its national meet two straight years and were joined by the second-place women in 2011.

Though I have primarily devoted this column to highlighting triathlon and cross country, other club teams will receive their moment in the spotlight in the coming weeks. The Cavalier Daily will begin chronicling the successes of Virginia’s other club teams in the new Club Sports Blog online, ensuring that all Cavalier athletic teams receive their acknowledgment.

Don’t feel guilty for following varsity sports most closely. Just remember keeping up with the club teams is worthwhile too.

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