ORONO — Samantha Frank didn’t realize what a hold the sport of wrestling had on her until she tried to give it up to study nursing at the University of Maine.

John Golder came to UMaine thinking about trying to walk-on to the football team, but has found a new passion after he was spotted lifting weights at the recreational center one day.

Melissa May and some colleagues in the university’s marine science department formed a fellowship in the pool and are now bringing a new sport to life on campus.

These are three stories among the 619 students who are playing on the 31 club sports teams at UMaine, usually hidden from public view but often competing on a national level.

“You have your varsity sports, they’re usually the top-tier sports at a university. Then intramural sports, which is just students playing against other students on campus. Sports clubs are the middle ground,” said Dale Russell, who moved to Maine from Florida this summer to coordinate the university’s club sports programs.

“Clubs can be just as competitive and just as serious as varsity sports.”

WRESTLING WINS OUT

Frank took up wrestling as a middle schooler in Windham, steered that direction by her father, Ed, after she grew up wanting to play football like her older brother, Andrew. She was good enough to finish second nationally among girls as a high school senior, and even fielded a half-dozen scholarship offers in the Midwest and West Coast. But she had declared at age 2 that her life’s goal was to become a nurse, and so she ventured north to Orono with that in mind.

A friend from high school suggested she wrestle for the club team at UMaine. Frank was skeptical.

“I kind of got myself down about it being a club. I said, no one looks at a club seriously,” she said.

Instead, Frank drifted to cheerleading tryouts when she arrived as a freshman last fall. She made the squad that cheered at football games. Then she found herself at the organizational meeting for the club wrestling team, after all.

“I didn’t even put thought into it. It was like reflex just to go the meeting,” Frank said. “I think any wrestler knows that once you start wrestling, you can’t give it up, whether you turn into a coach or you always go back to practices to help out or you just go roll around every now and then. I just couldn’t give it up.”

By March, Frank was in Texas winning a national championship at the 105-pound weight class in the women’s division of the National Collegiate Wrestling Association. She’s back at it this winter, hoping to defend that title. Her opinion of club wrestling has undergone a reversal.

“Coming in as a freshman, I didn’t really know too many people. It’s a big school. So the team was like my friends and my family. It kind of brought me back to high school sports,” Frank said. “It’s just cool that we do what the varsity sports do as a club. I think that varsity sports and a lot of people look down on clubs, like maybe they’re more like junior varsity, just like a hobby. I think it’s a lot more serious than people realize. We practice every single day. We work out on our own before practice. We have dietary guidelines.”

UNCONVENTIONAL OPTIONS

Club sports at Maine include traditional fare such as hockey, softball and volleyball, which compete nationally. But there also are unconventional options like badminton, fencing and crew. Teams may be hard-core, charging dues to participants and traveling on weekends in search of games. Others are more recreational, such as golf, which has 40 members who just like to get together to play the occasional round.

Clubs are eligible for up to $6,000 in funding each year from the university’s Student Government Inc. The university provided $10,264 in assistance to club teams this fiscal year, most of that in the form of athletic training.

Many club teams hold fund-raisers to help pay for league fees, equipment and travel.

Just as in varsity sports, there are eligibility rules to compete at the club level. You must be a full-time student at UMaine and only have five years in which to play, provided you meet a minimum GPA. Clubs take their rosters to the registrar’s office to get them verified. There are 314 men and 305 women competing at the university this school year, 23 of them graduate students.

The coaches for the teams are all volunteers.

“It gives students the opportunity to participate in a sport they either played in high school or is completely new to them and to continue on that competitive athletic path,” said Russell, who also coaches men’s rugby.

That is the club that Golder serves as president, three years after its then-coach spotted him pumping iron and asked him to try out. He joined the team that spring and immediately won a starting spot, putting to good use the skills he developed while playing running back and linebacker at Windham High.

“There’s a lot of tackling, a lot of running,” said Golder, who played every minute this fall as the team’s fly-half, a position akin to quarterback in football. “It was always my dream to play football for a high-division team. But I fell in love with rugby. I would choose rugby over football any day now. It’s just different and so much better. You sacrifice your body for the person next to you.”

The rugby club is one of the most established and competitive on campus. It was formed in 1973. This year’s squad drew 40 players and advanced further than any rugby team has at UMaine, reaching the national round of 32 before losing in the final seconds to Plattsburgh State of New York. The team is driven to win a national title, Golder said.

The team plays an all-Maine schedule of six regular-season games in the fall, winning the league this year with a 5-1 mark after an early season loss to Bates. In the spring, practices will resume and the team will play in tournaments like the Beast of the East in Rhode Island, which it won this year.

It also has the largest fan base of Maine’s club sports teams, with parents of the players, roommates and alumni lining the sideline for the Saturday afternoon games.

“A lot of people that come to watch it for the first time will always say it’s a lot more intense, a lot more fun than they thought,” said Nick Oswald, who played football at North Andover, Massachusetts, but was recruited to the club rugby team once he arrived at Maine.

Oswald, the team’s vice president, and Golder are working to build the team more on a varsity model. There are four practices a week, plus Saturday games, and players are expected to attend unless they have a class or test at that time. The dues are increasing from $40 a semester to $80 so that each player can be provided his own socks and a ball. Golder bought 50 of those for $304 online.

As for the socks, that’s been a recurring headache, Oswald said, one varsity coaches certainly don’t have to worry about.

“We only have 23 pairs and you’ll have a kid walk off with them,” Oswald said. “So we’re just like, forget it, throw $5 in, you’ll get a pair of socks and then if you lose them, it’s on you.”

The message is taking hold, Golder said. The team’s roster has doubled in size from a year ago, and that is reflected in the intensity of practices.

“You make sacrifices, too, Instead of going out on a Wednesday to get dollar wells (drinks), you’re going to stay in and study so you can take your exam and you can still go to practice,” Golder said. “You can’t just skip a practice. If I skip a practice, there’s three kids who want to play my spot.”

A GOAL PURSUED

Melissa May is experiencing life at the other end of that spectrum, as president of the university’s newest club team – water polo. It was a sport she started playing as a child in Arizona, as an undergraduate in that state and as one of the founders of a club team at the University of San Diego as a graduate student. In her fifth year as a doctoral student in marine biology at UMaine, May is taking the plunge again.

“We would start throwing the ball around recreationally last summer,” May said of her fellow graduate students, seven of whom had played the sport before. “We’d always talked about making a water polo club.”

Once she got 10 students interested in the idea, May was able to fill out the paperwork that enabled official certification and begin formal practices the week before Thanksgiving. The club will need to increase its numbers to at least 15 by next year to keep proceeding. It’s a co-ed squad for now, but must form separate men’s and women’s teams in order to compete against other colleges.

May is hopeful that will happen. She said word of mouth has gotten a few curious students to start showing up for the 8:30 p.m. practices three nights a week. Another 10 expressed interest but have yet to make it out to the pool.

Among the competitors is Nils Haentjens of France, a first-year graduate student in oceanography whose background is in sailing and rowing. But he had seen water polo before and is a friend of May’s, so …

“I was like, ‘Hmmm, seems cool, I wanted to try,'” Haentjens said of his reason for dipping his toes in the water. “I like that it’s a team sport. I really like the spirit of that, and then it’s kind of challenging physically. It’s demanding a lot, and it’s pretty tiring. I like that part, too.”

May said Haentjens has shown an affinity for water polo, though he didn’t know at first that you can’t just swim up to an opponent, grab the ball from him and push him underwater. The details of the sport are still elusive for some of the novices on her team, although the spirit is there.

May is hoping to set up scrimmages with teams from Bowdoin and Bates. There’s also an informal squad at the local YMCA that she’s hoping to get into the water against. A women’s team could begin actual competition in the spring, with a men’s counterpart doing the same next fall.

But first come the details like getting equipment and maybe a better practice schedule, things May is still navigating. The club is not eligible for school funding until after it has made it through a full year.

May has four water polo balls but no goals, which are expensive. She estimates she’ll need to raise at least $1,000 to outfit her team, although $3,000 would pay for everything it needs. For now, they are using a table instead of a goal so that the ball will bounce back into play after someone scores and they don’t have to waste time going to retrieve it.

“People are just learning how to play so for the most part they’re just swimming wherever they can and trying to figure it out. Which is fine, it works,” May said of her sometime-rough sport, which is played seven-on-seven.

“We’re the rugby in the water. I’m trying to market that so maybe we can get some rugby players to come,” she said with a laugh.

PRIORITY PINNED DOWN

Marketing the club teams is something Russell is making a priority in his first year on campus. He is pushing teams toward a more competitive model, similar to the men’s rugby squad he coaches.

“Unless you were a part of it when you were in college or you knew somebody who was a part of it, you probably don’t know about this level of competition,” he said.

That was certainly true for Frank, the skeptic-turned-national champion. She fell so naturally into club sports that she also gave rugby a whirl this fall, foregoing cheerleading to try a new sport that was the closest she’ll ever get to her dream of playing football.

“That was my little in, that was my loophole,” she said.

“I picked up on it right quick. I was good at tackling. Everyone always says I have a weird tackle. I think I just wrestle-tackle, like grab and throw. Whatever works. If they’re down, they’re down.”

Frank plans to continue with rugby, but wrestling remains her sport of choice. She is already plotting her winter schedule, which includes a trip to Canada where she can wrestle against women. In the U.S., she often gets matched against men, giving up a great deal of weight. At Maine, there is one other female wrestler who shows up to practice from time to time, but Frank otherwise squares off against her lightest male teammate – usually someone 30 or 40 pounds heavier.

“I think they don’t try to bash me,” she said. “Most of them are pretty respectful.”

Frank said nursing, not wrestling, is still her post-college plan. But she doesn’t deny the adrenaline rush she felt after pinning Mikayla Pico of Southwest Oregon Community College in the second round to become the surprise national champion in March. Pico was the two-time defending champ, but Frank was ready to pounce.

“In high school, I had gotten second place in the nationals so I knew what it felt like to lose in the finals. You get that close, and you can’t finish,” Frank said. “In the second period, as I was getting down and I was getting ready, I said, ‘I need to finish it here because I’m going to run out of gas if I don’t.’

“I never celebrate when I win; I’m just kind of content usually. But I jumped up and I was so happy and I sprinted over to (her coach, Aaron James) once I got my hand raised. I’m surprised I didn’t cry, I was probably just too tired.”