Penn State’s All-Inclusive Club Sports Program Offers More Than Competition
It’s no secret that Penn State excels in athletics. With 76 national team championships, Penn State has become a powerhouse in college sports.
What isn’t as widely known is that Penn State’s club sports scene dominates the national club sports community much like the varsity level. Some Penn State students find themselves turning down Division II or Division III athletic offers to pursue a Penn State education and still get to competitively play sports.
The Penn State Club Sports Program is home to 78 teams and more than 5,000 athletes. Each sport ranges in terms of competitiveness and campus involvement. A little known fact about the Club Sports Program is that some teams compete against Division II or Division III schools — and historically speaking, those teams stack up pretty well against the competition.
In 2013, Penn State club sports made headlines after six teams claimed national titles in a 30-day span, making the Penn State’s program arguably the most successful in the country. Program director Tommy Otterbine has helped guide the program to head-turning success in his 10 years in charge.
“It’s hard to track official statistics since there isn’t one overarching body,” Otterbine said. “Across your mainstream sports in the last 10 years we’ve won over 30 team national titles and that is by far the most in the country…I would go out on a limb and say we’re the most successful club sports program in the country.”
The program’s list of recent accolades spans across a handful of sports, and it’s not just local success; these teams are winning on the national stage. In the past three years, there has been at least one national title or title game appearance on club sports’ resume in each year. Men’s lacrosse and field hockey have both made and appearance in the last three national title games, claiming two of them. Women’s cross-country notched a national title in 2013 and 2015 along with a Half Marathon national title.
National runner-ups include women’s ice hockey and women’s basketball in 2013 and 2014, men’s and women’s track & field in 2014 and women’s again in 2015, and rifle in 2013. Men’s cross country set its personal-best finish this fall by placing second in the country. Men’s soccer was also the national runner-up in the fall, making an appearance in the national title game for the first time since 2001.
Otterbine credits a lot of the teams’ success to the strict no cut policy and the emphasis on pure student involvement. “We don’t ever measure success in a club sports program with the number of titles won,” Otterbine said. “We’re really looking for our clubs to be well-rounded students orgs.” The program encourages teams to get involved on campus through community service, THON and other philanthropies, and social events. This THON, club sports saw record numbers for dancer representation with 59 students dancing in this year’s event.
With the no-cut policy, the program aims to emphasize inclusion, recreation, and an outlet for students to feel like they belong somewhere. Otterbine believes that this is the ironic correlation to competitive success. Club sports may hold try-outs for travel team purposes but they are not allowed to tell students they aren’t allowed to join the club. “By doing that, we have these extraordinary numbers that no other school has,” Otterbine said. “You get students who join a club with little to no experience, then they end up being really good at the sport.”
Natalie Dell is a prime example of the why the no cut policy is in place. Dell is a 2007 grad who won the bronze medal at the London Olympics for crew. She was the first Nittany Lion to row in the Olympics, and got her start after joining the club crew team as a freshman with no previous rowing experience. With the no-cut policy she was able to join the team and discover a passion. Had the team made cuts, Dell would’ve never achieved Olympic glory.
In addition, with consistent Regional titles and recent national runner-up status, men’s soccer thrives off of the level of intensity the club program allows them to build for themselves. President Andrew Cirino credits the club’s success to the commitment of the entire team, especially as a self coached team.
The team set an appearance at the national title game as the ultimate goal at the first practice of the season. “Anything less than that would be a huge disappointment for us, and we put in the time to make that goal a reality,” Cirino said.
The level of intensity has brought the team together. Cirino credits the club as the foundation of his social experience in college.“Our team is very close… and [I] remain in touch with past players,” Cirino said.
Club Field Hockey president Megan Wandrisco also found herself in the group of prospective student-athletes turning down Division II and Division III offers. “The colleges I was looking at did not have the culture and environment that Penn State offers,” Wandrisco said. “This was crucial in my final decision of committing to Penn State because I was able to attend the school that had everything I wanted academically and socially without having to sacrifice the sport that I have played all my life.”
“Club Field Hockey has enhanced my time here at Penn State,” Wandrisco said. “It provides a balance between academics, competition, and social life.” She describes the team’s experience with THON as not just an opportunity to take part in cause bigger than themselves, but to grow closer as a team. Not only have they supported their two THON families, but their families have supported them. Club Field Hockey’s experience has aligned with the mission statement the Club Sports Program set.
Anna Coustimbus, another student and basketball player, found club as a way to be a Penn Stater and not miss being an athlete. “Penn State was always where my heart was,” Coustimbus said. She was raised in a Nittany Lion household and couldn’t image herself anywhere else.
“I’m really glad I found club,” Coustimbus said. She is content with her decision to choose pursing her academics instead of athletics. The club allows her to be as involved as much or as little as she wants.
The involvement level at the choice of the athlete seems to be a positive trend across the program. Senior Club Lacrosse president and club sports employee, Matthew Reilly, had similar things to say about his experience with Club Lacrosse. It’s the right balance between competitive and social. With their recent national titles and continued success, they attract about 120 students who come out on the first day to join the team every fall.
With the no-cut policy, men’s lacrosse breaks up their roster into competitive and non-competitive. With about 50-60 guys on the official roster, about 30 are able to travel. This way everyone can still be involved at the level they want to be.
“We do take it seriously when we need to and we do believe that we’re always contending for a national title… but we’re not going to hold strict to the practice four nights a week, we understand it’s a club sport.” Reilly said on the intensity, especially with practice in inclement weather.
Men’s soccer, women’s basketball, men’s lacrosse, and cross-country are just the tip of the iceberg of successful Club Sports Program here. With continued success both on and off the field, students are able to get the education they wanted all while embracing the rigors of competition that they didn’t want to lose
Between producing Olympians, impressive accolades, countless friendships and memories, all with Penn State pride pulsing through every step, the Club Sports Program is definitely something for all of Penn State to be proud of.