FEATURE: Playing in the Shadows
McGill’s competitive clubs grapple with identity two years after varsity restructuring
Preparing for one of its biggest weekends of the year, McGill’s women’s lacrosse team woke up for a 6 a.m. to practice at Molson Stadium. An hour into the two-hour session, members of the Redmen football team took over the field, and the women were forced to cut their practice short. The men had been scheduled to play on Forbes Field, but needed to get into the proper ‘headspace’ for an upcoming game.
For competitive clubs at McGill, the bottom rung in the McGill Athletics hierarchy, this sort of second-class status is now the norm, and many have accepted it. Many athletes and teams once held varsity status, which entitled them to preferential treatment from McGill Athletics, but lost it during the summer of 2010, when McGill restructured its athletic organization. Today, teams like women’s lacrosse, men’s volleyball, cycling, and others have all adapted to restructuring in a variety of ways. Some fear for the survival of their teams, others are hopeful for the future, and some teams even believe they are now better off.
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Caroline Lucas-Conwell, a fourth-year lacrosse player and co-captain of the team knew she wanted the sport to be part of her university experience. McGill’s former coach, Heather Roffey, was on sabbatical in California. She turned Lucas-Conwell’s eyes to the women’s varsity lacrosse program at McGill.
“I was really into lacrosse and I knew that I wanted to play.” Lucas-Conwell said. “I had opportunities at other schools, but I chose McGill.”
Jessica Kras, Lucas-Conwell’s co-captain was on the fence between McGill and Ottawa. “Lacrosse was the deciding factor,” Kras said. She chose McGill despite being offered an academic scholarship in the nation’s capital.
In 2012, Women’s lacrosse was a severely underfunded Tier III team, but was on its way to an upgrade to Tier II status. That came to a crashing halt in the team’s second year.
“Our captains at the time were here all summer, trying to find out what exactly was happening with the restructuring,” Kras said. “We weren’t sure exactly what the status would be, what it meant to lose varsity status, and who had ultimately made the decision to restructure.”
By the second week of August (lacrosse season takes place at the beginning of the school year) the women weren’t sure if they would even have a team.
Losing varsity status has had significant effects on the team: they have no guarantees of field space and time, and have to make do with the scraps that varsity teams and campus recreation programs leave behind. They lost the ability to use the ‘Martlets’ name, and McGill no longer signs waivers to allow them to participate in the Ontario championship, which they are invited to every season.
“I remember representatives from athletics coming into a sports club meeting and saying ‘there’s nothing we can do anymore,’” Kras said, showing how far the team has fallen from its previous status.
Recently, they have been forced to pay for playing time at Jeanne-Mance Park in order to supplement their practice time at McGill. The new status also means less access to athletic trainers and medical staff. Members of the team have been forced to medically assist one an other before finally getting time at McGill’s Windsor clinic.
What has changed most, though, is the attitude of the team itself.
“When we were varsity, we were expected to have a certain level of commitment because [we] are varsity [athletes], but now that we’re a competitive club, it’s more relaxed,” says Lucas-Conwell. “A lot of girls now … say they are happy that it’s a club because they don’t feel as pressured. There’s a different mentality. We value our teammates’ commitment, but we can’t ask as much from them in the last few years as we have been able to in the past.”
Now that they are not expected to make cuts, the McGill women’s lacrosse team welcomes more beginners into their team. Although it is more open, the level of play is not what it could be.
Why do they continue to play despite a lack of funds, respect, or a trophy to play for?
“Everyone who’s on the team is there because they love lacrosse,” Lucas-Conwell said. “You’re not there because you got a scholarship. You’re there because you want to play and you love to be on the field.”
Despite the positive attitude, Lucas-Conwell and Kras wonder how long these good feelings will last, and how deep the restructuring will really cut into the organization.
“It feels like what they’re trying to do is cut out all possibilities to survive as a team until we die,” Lucas-Conwell said, speaking for many in the organization. “We’re afraid because we’re both graduating soon, and we’re scared that the team’s not going to live.”
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For Adam Bouchard, VP External of McGill Cycling, it is the uncertainty that makes life difficult for him and his team.
“There’s a little bit of ‘rolling the dice’ every time you walk into the building,” Bouchard said. “We always have to wonder, ‘Is our room going to be our room?’”
Cycling lost access to the varsity weight room with the 2010 restructuring, along with a small $500 grant from McGill. According to Bouchard, however, different teams have different cultures, and therefore have been affected to different degrees.
Neither the loss of the miniscule grant, or their position on the bottom rung on the room-booking hierarchy is a big loss to cycling.
“$500 a year, as far as funding goes, is change for a lot of [other] teams. We have a much larger budget and we have team fees,” he said. “It’s not killing the teams so much as it’s just annoying.”
Having access to the varsity weight room is key for the group training sessions because the cycling team can have as many as 40 cyclists attend a workout. However, since they don’t need a court or a field, unlike other competitive clubs, there is less friction with the needs of varsity athletes.
“All we need when we’re training inside, is one room to do our plyometric workout, and we use the spin room for spinning. We’ve been lucky in that, [as a] summer sport, [our] winter training method doesn’t compete with any of the big teams.”
The unique culture of cycling actually means that the restructuring might be a benefit for the team in the long-run. Without the restrictions of having to hire a paid coach, select out elite squads to be named ‘varsity,’ or compete in an all-Quebec competition, Bouchard and his teammates can promote their sport to newcomers, while competing with the best.
“If you have a helmet, working brakes, and a bike, you’re ready to go,” Bouchard said, noting that, had McGill been forced to select only the elite, he would have never gotten involved in road racing. “The place we compete has everywhere from an ‘A’ category, with semi-professional racers, to an intro category where people are only going to race for 12 minutes because they’re brand new to the sport. ’”
Unrestricted by university and CIS regulations, McGill’s cyclists travel south of the border to compete with Northeastern schools like Harvard, MIT, Rutgers, and NYU, managing top 10 finishes against American elites. Bouchard would like to see a league start up in Quebec—a necessary step in order to regain varsity status. However, he would not use it to make the jump to varsity, as the strength of the U.S. competition helps the team’s cyclists grow. For him, the restructuring is an annoyance, but it also leaves the team well-positioned for the future.
“It’s fun when it works,” he said. “And it’s fine when it works.”
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Alex Nachman came to McGill in Sept. 2010, immediately after the varsity restructuring. Passionate about volleyball, he now sits as the volleyball club’s vice-president. Nachman represents the new, more relaxed attitude of the athletes that make up McGill’s competitive clubs today.
“I wasn’t expecting to be involved in sports when I came [to McGill],” Nachman said. He found out about the club halfway through his first semester, and went to a try-out to get onto the squad. “I like the level of play, [and] it’s a great group of guys. I didn’t have intentions of being a top-level volleyball player, but by now I’ve gotten pretty good.”
When Nachman joined the team, it was mainly composed by athletes who had been a part of the varsity team. He said that the crestfallen ex-varsity players lacked the fire that they once had, and took far too relaxed a commitment to the team. Practice time was cut from every day to five hours a week. McGill was no longer competing for a coveted CIS National Championship, but played games and competitions against anyone in the Montreal area willing to take them on.
However, now that only a couple of former varsity players remain, the team has a new attitude, something that Nachman feels makes it special.
“For the first couple of years, the attitude was very different,” he said. “Now, players are excited that they get a chance to play at a higher level. This is their only chance at post-high school volleyball. They’re interested in getting better, and being the best we can be in our competition.”
Because he’s never played varsity volleyball, Nachman’s feelings towards McGill Athletics are rather mild. He feels that McGill does as much as it can, considering its resources to help the team succeed. He also understands where he and his teammates stand in the hierarchy.
“You do get a small sense of being at a ‘lower status’ than varsity teams, but that comes with being a club, and that’s what a club is,” he said.
Of course, not everything is easy. The team is forced to jump through hoops to design its uniforms based on McGill’s strict regulations concerning insignia, their practice time is encroached upon by varsity teams, and the team’s equipment is stored in a place where it can be touched and used by anyone. The men fundraise for their team, partially by working jobs around the gym, particularly for the women’s team, who retained varsity status.
“We want to be a competitive team,” Nachman said. “It’s frustrating trying to build a team when you don’t necessarily have the time to do it.”
That notion of ‘building’ is what Nachman stressed the most. Having to re-imagine themselves as a competitive club, the men’s volleyball team is trying to build itself for future success within the new restrictions.
“[We have] a really bright future,” Nachman said. “We’re still trying to build our identity, two or three years into building a program. We’re not entirely sure where it’s going to go, and what it’s going to look like down the road, but if this year is any indication of what’s to come, it’s pretty great.”
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Above all, McGill’s competitive clubs live a life of daily uncertainty. From Kras and Conwell’s concerns of whether their team will survive; to Bouchard’s concern of whether he will have space for his team to train; to Nachman’s question of what his team’s identity will be in the future, life is certainly not easy. While the administration claims to be allocating resources as fairly as possible, one wonders why the #McGillPride campaign does not apply to all students willing to wear red-and-white and to represent McGill at the highest levels of competition.
“You have to understand the hierarchy of how things are booked in this place,” said Katie Uttley, responsible for competitive clubs, as well as for the Fitness Centre and varsity strength and conditioning. Though she helps the teams with travel arrangements and their McGill Athletics accounts, she stresses that the clubs are 100 per cent student-run.
“Life isn’t fair,” she said. “With us not able to build up in our structure or build out, we’re really limited by the resources we have. It’s very difficult to ensure what we can for the clubs.”
“McGill doesn’t want to label a team they’re not giving funding to a varsity team because it looks like they’re leaving them at the wayside,” said Bouchard. As long as competitive teams live in the shadows, the illusion that these teams just don’t exist will persist.
Full disclosure: Tribune sports editor Jeff Downey is president of the McGill men’s volleyball club. He did not participate in the research or writing of this story.