When the NFHS presented its inaugural Heart of the Arts Award to Leia Schwartz in 2014, she had just completed a highly involved high school career at Coral Reef High School in Miami.
Schwartz was a three-sport athlete in golf, swimming and bowling; captain of the geography, math and history teams; and a student government representative. In addition, her excellence in choir and as a singer/songwriter earned her the NFHS honor.
“With everything I did, two of my biggest passions were always golf and music,” Schwartz said. “I knew that I wanted to continue both golf and music in college but was trying to navigate how to do so and at what level.”
While Schwartz, who is now the communications coordinator of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Foundation, was exploring various options for continuing her athletic career at the NCAA level, Stetson University offered a full academic scholarship. Not willing to turn down that opportunity, she sought out other avenues to continue playing golf in college. Her golf mentor advised her to look at collegiate club golf.
While the majority of college athletes participate in one of three NCAA divisions, at the NAIA level or in junior college, collegiate club teams provide another avenue for high school athletes to pursue, while still allowing them to participate in other interests. Club sports often mirror the university’s offerings but can also be found for non-traditional sports like rugby, rodeo, skiing or racquetball.
For college students who often have a full class schedule, a part-time job and other organizational commitments, collegiate club sports give them a competitive outlet and team experience without a large time commitment.
Kris Hart, CEO of the National Collegiate Club Golf Association (NCCGA), was a varsity golfer at Bryant University in Rhode Island for his first three years of college, but due to a heavy academic schedule in his senior year, he made a tough decision to quit playing varsity college golf. He notes that the reduced time commitment is a major benefit to playing club sports, especially golf.
“Knowing what it’s like to be a varsity golfer versus a non-varsity golfer was eye opening,” Hart said. “It really stunk being a non-varsity golfer given there was no access to affordable golf or opportunities for tournament play. Our goal is to ensure every high school student knows he or she can play golf at the next level.”
The NCCGA is just one of the sports-specific organizations for collegiate club sports. Associations exist for basketball, football, softball and baseball, just to name a few. These organizations administer national tournaments and assist schools in running their club programs. When Schwartz arrived at Stetson, she noticed that golf was not among the sports offered at the club level. She then discovered the NCCGA, which helped her found the Stetson club golf team.
“I spoke with one of the admissions recruiters, Tobin Birney, who had played Division I golf at Stetson, about getting a club golf team on campus,” Schwartz said. “He said that he had always wanted to start one, so I said, ‘let’s do it!’”
Club sports also allow a wide range of ability levels to compete in college and be a part of a team. While the competitiveness of a club team depends on the sport and the size of the school, cuts are often not made and interested players can sometimes join a team with little experience participating in the sport.
In addition, much like high school sports help prepare student- athletes for challenges later in life, Schwartz said her time playing club golf gave her a springboard to a future career.
“Club golf was one of the most impactful experiences of my college career,” she said. “These skills and experiences helped me get two incredible internships at the LPGA and PGA of America and helped introduce me to all of the opportunities available in the golf industry.”
High school athletic directors should discuss with their athletes the various options to continuing their athletic careers beyond high school.
“It’s important to know that even if [a student-athlete] is not competing at the NCAA level, there are still options to continue your athletic career in college,” Schwartz said. “Club golf – and all club sports – are such a great opportunity for athletes of all skill levels that more people need to be aware of them.”
Chris Boone is assistant director of publications and communications at the NFHS and the assistant editor of High School Today.