UofSC Club Sports men’s lacrosse team climbs to the top after overcoming funding obstacles
In May, a second-straight national championship win was within the grasp of the University of South Carolina men’s lacrosse club team. But to compete for the title, they had to cough up $20,000 in travel costs. The trip to Round Rock, Texas was not something the Gamecocks were prepared to finance. Worse, they had only a three-day window to purchase the airline tickets.
The lacrosse team’s scramble to fund their trip to the MCLA finals underscored the contrast between how club sports operate versus NCAA athletics at the university. Most of UofSC’s club sport programs are run by students. So much goes into it, according to club president William Lohoff-Gaida, that it can feel like a job.
Creating a budget with limited funding is one of student-athletes’ many tasks. Whether a club team has a shot at postseason play is unpredictable, and any related logistics are unknown as they plan for yearly spending. The club might hope for a shot at the championship, but they can’t budget for it.
Various resources have to be accounted for in their planning, with regular-season costs for each team member in the 2022 season of between $2,000 and $3,000. This left no money for funding the postseason trip, which would cost $420 per airline ticket for 45 players and four coaches, not to mention lodging and additional transportation. The club asked for another $750 in dues from each player and joined forces with Columbia’s Village Idiot Pizza restaurant, who helped with some of the travel and lodging costs.
An online fundraiser yielded the greatest proceeds toward the Gamecocks’ travel expenses. The team’s treasurer said they would not have been able to buy the tickets without the fundraiser, according to Lohoff-Gaida.
Peter Candela, the club’s head coach and manager of many club logistics, says that the club team stands out from other student athletes at the university. While other athletes only have daily worries like other sports, the club team has to worry about administrative tasks like scheduling and finances.
Funding a student-led organization
Credit for the success of the men’s lacrosse team goes to the athletes, according to UofSC sport programs director Justin Furlough. While Furlough’s department helps the team acquire necessary resources such as insurance and medical care, the students are responsible for everything else. They plan a budget, which has to be approved by a sport club executive board. The board then issues the team a piece of the $35,977 reserved for distribution among the school’s 56 club programs.
With so little funding, the budget quickly runs out of room for potential postseason play. The student-run executive board was able to secure nearly double the club sports’ 2022 budget for the 2023 fiscal year, on a trial basis. The increase in funds sounds promising for next season, but funding from the school over the past year amounted to only 1% of the team’s overall costs. As reported by Lohoff-Gaida, this year’s full season cost around $200,000. Funding from the school was only $2,000.
Regular-season travel eats up the majority of the lacrosse team’s budget. The team schedules games in Florida, Virginia and Arizona throughout the season. They have to play high-ranked teams, Lohoff-Gaida said, so they can maintain a high ranking.
In order to bridge what seems to be an impossibly large gap between school funding and costs, the student-athletes have to find innovative ways to raise money. They run an online store that sells team merchandise. They also collaborated with Village Idiot Pizza, who hosted a fundraiser and donated a percentage of the evening’s regular profits to the team. Village Idiot then held a watch party for the national championship game, which was a success, according to Lohoff-Gaida.
The men’s lacrosse club is also driven by other supporters like Shelly Smith, the South Carolina women’s soccer coach. According to Candela, Smith is a huge fan of the team, as is her husband Jamie Smith, the associate women’s soccer coach. The Smiths bought the team dinner when they were in Texas for the championship.
The construction of a championship team
Two consecutive MCLA titles have made the UofSC men’s lacrosse team an appealing option for players who don’t want the sport to dominate their lives. Players trying out for the lacrosse team must maintain at least a 2.5 GPA and have to be enrolled in classes full-time. Of approximately 150 students who vied for a spot on the club lacrosse team this year, 45 made the roster. Then those students’ schedules required synchronization to find practice times. Lohoff-Gaida said that while the club meets for practice twice a week, it’s playing games that really builds their strength as a team.
The players hail from 10 different states, including Maryland and New York, both known for their lacrosse culture, according to Lohoff-Gaida. Only 14 of the 45 team members are South Carolina natives. Some of the members transferred to the club from Division I, which Lohoff-Gaida said is much more demanding, with less time for schoolwork or a social life. A lot of the team members transferred from those big programs to avoid the full-time lacrosse obligation, according to Candela. The schedule of practicing two days a week allows them to enjoy the college experience while also participating in a competitive sport.
A rocky start to the club sport season
The Gamecocks have battled through unfavorable situations to reach the national title. The season got off to a shaky start, with a 3-3 record early in the season. They managed to turn things around by winning 14 games in a row, 10 of those before nationals. Due to poor field conditions, they first played Georgia Tech at Columbia’s Heathwood Hall Episcopal School in March. The relocated game ended in a muddy loss, but the team kicked off their winning streak during the very next game, defeating Cal Poly 14-8.
The Gamecocks also won a game at Clemson’s soccer stadium, the Historic Riggs Field. This was a triumph for Lohoff-Gaida, who one day wants to see the club play at Stone Stadium, USC’s own soccer venue. They also won a crucial game in the Southeastern Lacrosse Conference Division I Tournament.
Life after a club sports victory
Once the lacrosse club made it to Texas, they played and won against Arizona, Liberty, and Brigham Young University. Then they played Georgia Tech for the third time: after the loss in March and a win in April.
When the Gamecocks met the Yellow Jackets for the final time at the championship game, they were battling heat so brutal some of their cleats melted. That time the weather didn’t keep them from the win. Social media posts by Dawn Staley and Shane Beamer, UofSC’s women’s basketball coach and football coaches, cheered them on. UofSC alum Darius Rucker also posted a congratulatory tweet. Lohoff-Gaida and Candela expressed their gratitude and hope for similar and continued support .
Given the lacrosse players who already flock to UofSC, Lohoff-Gaida thinks that if the university started an NCAA lacrosse program, it would be a success, possibly even going on to Division I. According to Furlough, a UofSC club has never made the transition to NCAA sport. He and Candela are not sure it would be such a positive change. For one thing, current lacrosse club players would not be guaranteed a spot in an NCAA program. That’s because admission is talent- and even recruitment-based rather than on the payment of dues and meeting eligibility in club sports. For another, the team is united by all the work they put in to keep the club running.
Funding for an NCAA team would be the biggest obstacle, Candela said. He believes UofSC securing the funds and building the first NCAA men’s lacrosse team in the SEC would result in a recruiting advantage. Although Candela attributes the men’s lacrosse team’s success to the club culture, he says one day an NCAA program could be a good thing for the state of South Carolina.
Insurance for college and university club sports
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Photos courtesy of UofSC Office of Campus Recreation