After a long struggle to return after COVID-19, club sports are finally regaining momentum at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
The resurgence was evident at “Chattanooga Nights,” a mid-September recruiting event hosted by the club sports programs that featured games, food and representatives from multiple club sports.
“A year and a half of that is a long time to maintain morale for everybody,” said Cindy Strine, director of campus recreation at UTC, about club sports during the pandemic.
According to Strine, dwindling recruitment numbers, graduated team leaders and lack of support from national governing bodies made it difficult for teams to return to UTC and other universities.
“One of the struggles, internally, is making sure they have the numbers to play,” she said. “Externally, it’s finding teams that are back because there’s still a lot of schools that used to have 20 clubs that may only have five or six.”
According to team president Peyton Hall, women’s lacrosse, which began at UTC in 2017, took a pandemic hit. The junior from Nashville represented lacrosse at Chattanooga Nights.
“COVID almost did lacrosse in. It was hard to come back because it is considered a contact sport, but we are in the process of building back,” Hall said. “We’re trying to get everything set up to have a nice foundation for years to come, which is our main goal at the moment while making it fun for the people in and out.”
Hall invited students to become part of the revival. With upcoming games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky, lacrosse will not disappoint for those looking for serious competition.
“It’s not something you have to have experience in. We have girls who have never played a sport at all. We’re happy to teach people how to play,” she said.
Several club sports, such as fencing, saw a big jump in the number of club members this year.
Issac Jalonen, a freshman from Seabeck, Washington, is a social media manager and member of club fencing at UTC. Despite existing as a club sport since 2016, Jalonen said that it hasn’t been until this year that the club has seen significant growth—with nearly 30 members.
Although they are not yet able to compete against other schools, Jalonen explained that the club holds competitions and tournaments between team members.
“That hasn’t really stopped people from forming rivalries,” he said. “It’s been so much fun to watch people grow, and fostering a community really brings out the growth.”
A somewhat different club sport is UTC’s esports program.
Call of Duty player Michael Padera, a sophomore from Chicago, explained that he noticed a sudden boom in the popularity of esports at UTC.
While COVID may have hindered the progression of esports on campus, Padera said, it led to a post-COVID resurgence due to students needing a less intimidating social environment.
“Having esports, not just Call of Duty, kind of gave an avenue for students to be able to talk to other students again to feel like you can be a person at school instead of having to just be a robot,” he said.
Another Call of Duty player, Cameron Lepley, said attending Chattanooga Nights allowed the esports teams to raise awareness about playing competitively and casually.
“If you wanted to do something outside of school as an extracurricular, competitively, for a scholarship opportunity or to get experience in an industry, that’s what we want to carry here,” said Lepley, a senior from Portland, Tennessee.
He also said this is a big year for esports at UTC. “This is the first year we actually have a lot of financial backing,” he said, “and it’s very invigorating and exciting.”
Moxie Ultimate is the women’s ultimate frisbee league. Mary Scott, a sophomore from Chattanooga, said the team is still rebuilding from what it once had.
“It kind of threw a wrench in everything from what I’ve heard,” she said. “My freshman year was the first year where we were actually recruiting people. It’s a slow process and I’m just a sophomore—and I’m seeing how hard it is.”
Another sophomore from Chattanooga, Sydney Finch, said that Moxie Ultimate also offers a safe space for many players.
“I’ve already started to get along and have a good rapport with a lot of people and am starting to make friends,” Finch said. “I don’t talk to anyone and this is the only time I can talk to others. It’s nice.”
Scott added that playing for Moxie Ultimate keeps members excited and engaged, as the team participates in five to six tournaments a semester against other schools.
“We go to North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia,” she said. “We travel pretty far to compete with other teams.”
The revival of club sports also allowed a space for new club sports to enter the field.
Jamie Norris, a sophomore from Manchester, Tennessee, started the co-ed hurling club at UTC this semester. He took inspiration from his dad, who started a hurling club at Middle Tennessee State University 15 years ago.
“I was traveling with my dad all over the place,” Norris said. “I grew up watching them play.”
He said the UTC team already has seven or eight players. His goals for this year include playing in regionals—and nationals next semester. Being a small team, they plan to team up with the University of Memphis for matches.
Although not fully back to its pre-pandemic state, Strine said the club sports program is very close to a full recovery.
“The numbers are growing in the clubs,” she said. “The number of teams is close to where we were before. We were at 20 before and now we’re close to 18.”
Strine expressed how glad she is that club sports are making a comeback and encouraged students to participate.
“Everybody wants to be a part of something,” she said. “You do not have to be a superstar in these sports in order to engage and be involved.”