Commentary

The NCAA road less glorified

Athletes in emerging sports play with passion but little fanfare

Originally Published: July 20, 2009
By Heather Dinich | ESPN.com

It took years for Eastern Illinois rugby coach Frank Graziano to perfect a five-page recruiting letter he poured his heart into, and when Molly Clutter got one in the mail, she couldn't believe it -- literally.

"I thought it was a joke," she said. "I thought it was a big, fat joke."

Clutter was a high school track athlete who, like the rest of her teammates, had never seen a rugby game before let alone played in one.

[+] EnlargeE. Illinois Rugby
Sandy King Molly Clutter (far right) and Eastern Illinois women's rugby are helping to pave the way for what could soon be an NCAA championship sport.

It wasn't until Graziano called her and talked to her about the opportunity that the possibility of playing rugby in college became real.

"Just the way Coach sold the program to me, perfectly, he made me believe I could do it," said Clutter, who graduated in May. "I got there and at first it was overwhelming because I had no idea what was going on, but afterwards I fell in love with it."

Despite being inundated by mainstream sports such as soccer, track, basketball and tennis while in high school, there's a niche of female college athletes out there who have found their way to what the NCAA has deemed emerging sports. There's no promise of lucrative scholarship money (Graziano has less than one to give), no packed stadiums and no fancy Final Four or NCAA-recognized championships, but the athletes say there is a sense of accomplishment in the competition, and the relationships with coaches and teammates are worth the trade-off.

"I didn't think I was missing out," Clutter said. "The way I feel is, other people who aren't playing rugby are missing out."

The NCAA created emerging sports for women as a way to generate more opportunities for women in collegiate sports in support of Title IX. The current list of emerging sports includes archery, badminton, equestrian, rugby, squash, synchronized swimming and team handball. Sand volleyball is currently being added and will be effective August 2010.

Emerging sports are only for women, and the NCAA allows a time frame of 10 years for the sport to grow to 40 teams over all three divisions before it is considered a championship sport. Emerging sports are an attractive alternative for competitive athletes who might be a step too slow to be recruited for a Division I or Division II sport, but they're also a way for students enamored by Olympic sports to continue competing.

With three national titles, three coaches and 50 horses, Georgia's equestrian program is one of the best in the country. The Bulldogs have 15 scholarships for 65 riders, so full rides aren't an option. Boosters keep the program going, as the Bulldogs have themselves purchased only two horses in eight years; some are valued at $250,000.

Lauren Love, a team captain and Western rider originally from Texas, grew up around horses her entire life, as both of her parents are veterinarians. She had already made a name for herself showing her own horse for a decade, and she was recruited for it. The riders at Georgia lift weights with the other athletes, share the same academic facilities and have their own farm.

The only thing missing, Love said, is the recognition from the NCAA.

"Being at the beginning stages of it, and being able to see it be successful now, that's really what I'd ultimately want, is for it to progress and be a championship sport and be able to say I helped get it to be at the stage it is now and such an important sport," Love said. "We do all the same stuff as baseball and football and have to follow all the same rules as them, as far as being student-athletes, so it would be great to be able to get that recognition from the NCAA saying that it's pretty legit, I guess."

Although factors such as fan support, scholarships and exposure aren't comparable to the Division I revenue sports, there's no drop-off when it comes to love of the game. Clutter's scholarship her freshman year at Eastern Illinois consisted of a whopping $500, and increased marginally each year.

"It didn't mean anything to me," she said. "I was like, 'You could take my scholarship money away and I would still be here at practice tomorrow.'"

Sarah Chai, who will be a sophomore at Columbia, has loved archery since the first time she tried it at a summer camp in elementary school. She wasn't counting on competing in college, though, and didn't even know Columbia was the only varsity program in the country until she arrived on campus. Her only disappointment in the sport is that more people don't appreciate it.

"It's really frustrating sometimes when people don't realize how cool archery is, and how much you actually have to work to be good at it," Chai said. "There are so many people out there who have never tried archery before, and it's so sad because I think it's the coolest thing in the world. Everyone should try it just once just to see what it is and how difficult it is. Even the schools that have clubs right now, I feel like there should be more.

"I wish more schools had it because it would be more fun. More people would compete, there would be more awareness, and it really is such a fun sport."

[+] EnlargeSarah Chai
Derek Davis/Columbia University Columbia archery might not be well-known, but Sarah Chai is happy to be participating in her sport in college.

When Maura Myers took over the squash program at George Washington five years ago, recruiting consisted of calling the tennis coach and asking if there were any walk-ons who could hold a racquet who didn't make the cut. She'd hang out at the squash court and post signs there in hopes of attracting some players. Now, it's not uncommon for players to contact her.

Chelsea Mouta, who is going to be a senior at GW this year, learned of squash when she was a sophomore at a boarding school, Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Conn. She's gotten used to answering questions about it.

"I'd love it if people didn't every time you mention squash, they say, 'Oh, that's like racquetball' or 'What's squash?'" Mouta said. "It's always a conversation starter, or people know and they're really interested in how our team is doing, or how did I get started playing?

"But I do love the squash community. But I think it would definitely be great to get more people interested in the sport in general. It has a lot to offer the community."

GW spent its first three seasons under Myers at the bottom end of the sport. The Colonials' recruiting took a positive turn, though, and they won a sportsmanship award. The team finished 2009 with its highest-ever ranking of 15th in the nation. Five new recruits, including Mouta, gave the program a boost to No. 15 in the nation. And this year, there are no beginner squash players on the roster.

"That was such an accomplishment for us," Mouta said. "I don't think we realized how phenomenal it is and how great the program has grown because we're just doing what we do every day -- two hours of practice and then weekend matches -- but we've come really far and worked really hard to get to where we are now."

They're not the only ones. Eastern Illinois' rugby program went undefeated last year and gave its fan club members T-shirts that read: "The speed of track, the power of football and the grace of soccer."

With all of those sports wrapped into one, Clutter has no regrets about her decision to take her first and only rugby recruiting letter seriously.

"I am so happy that I finally realized it wasn't a joke," Clutter said. "I'm so happy I did it, because if not, I would've missed out on a ton of memories and just an awesome feeling."

Heather Dinich covers college sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at espn.hd@hotmail.com. Check out her ACC football blog.