Fans already are tailgating outside the arena when a bus drops off a throng of College of Charleston students. Inside, spectators exchange chants of "C-I T-A D-E-L!" and "C-O U-G A-R-S!" as the teams warm up for the big game, a meeting of crosstown rivals.
But for this contest, there are no TV cameras on hand, no radio announcers to call the play-by-play, no demand for post-game interviews. The spectators pack the stands at one of the rinks at the Carolina Ice Palace, but the crowd amounts to only about 150 people.
Welcome to the world of college club sports -- in this case, ice hockey -- where there is no debate about whether colleges should pay players. Instead, the players pay, sometimes dearly, for the privilege of representing their schools in a sport they love.
"I've played hockey my whole life," said Drew Blazier, a senior who plays for The Citadel. "To be able to play for my school, that means a lot."
It means so much that hockey players at The Citadel and College of Charleston are willing to pay dues of $900 per year to play for their club teams. That's on top of shelling out for equipment that can run $450 for skates, $220 for a stick, $100 for shin pads and $80 for shorts. Club teams also have to pay for their own ice time, for officials and for food and shelter on the road.
"It's expensive, but it's worth it," said Blazier.
Join the club
Club teams are separate from the varsity programs run by the schools' athletic departments, and thus receive minimal support from campus. College of Charleston hockey has a budget of about $30,000 per year, according to coach Joe Snecinski, who coached women's hockey at Yale for five years. Citadel hockey leases a locker room at the Carolina Ice Palace and has a trailer to haul equipment. The school provides vans for road trips.
Players raise money -- College of Charleston hockey players work concessions at the Cougars' home basketball games, and Citadel players have raffled off a motorcycle -- and rely on alumni and sponsors for donations.
"It's the most expensive club sport at our school," said College of Charleston player Ryan Mullin, a junior from Dorchester, Mass. "But we have a golf tournament to raise money, we work at the basketball games, we go out and try to find sponsors. Anything we can get will really help."
Both Snecinski and Citadel coach Dave Spooner are realistic about the future of hockey at their schools. Budget realties mean that the odds are stacked against hockey ever becoming a varsity sport at either school.
"The chances are pretty slim," said Spooner, a veteran youth hockey coach who rescued a struggling Citgadel program in 2007. "You would need a million dollars, and you would need your own rink to practice in every day. When we played Navy a couple of years ago, their coach told me it would take a million dollars to start a Division I team."
But that doesn't mean the Cougars and Bulldogs can't play good hockey and compete for championships. Both clubs play in the Blue Ridge Hockey Conference, an affiliation of 24 club teams in the mid-Atlantic Region. The Carolina Division includes C of C and The Citadel, Charlotte, Elon, Appalachian State, Wake Forest and Johnson & Wales. Clemson and South Carolina also have club teams that play in Division III of the American Collegiate Hockey Association.
For the Cougars, who until last year played in a local men's league, the Blue Ridge Conference is a huge improvement. The Cougars hope to play a game at the North Charleston Coliseum in conjuction with the Stingrays in February.
"It's so much better now," said the Cougars' Ryan Mullin, a junior from Dorchester, Mass., who played a year of Division III varsity hockey at Manhattanville College. "We are playing other schools, there's hitting. It's much more of a game and much more of a team than playing in a beer league. We have off-ice training, team meetings, lift weights. This is real hockey."
Filling a void
Club sports fill a real need on campuses where athletic department budgets are strapped and varsity teams face the ax, especially on the men's side.
At The Citadel, for example, men's soccer and men's golf were cut from the varsity roster in 2003. A club team for men's soccer sprung up in place of the varsity squad, and a club team for men's golf could soon follow. Last year, Charleston Southern also established a men's club soccer team to help fill the void left after the varsity team was cut in 2004. The team, with about 20 players, is the only club sport at CSU.
About 327 cadets play on eight club teams at The Citadel, ranging from men's and women's rugby teams to lacrosse, sailing, pistol and multi-sport, which includes triathlon, cycling and road racing. At College of Charleston, there are about 450 students on 27 club teams.
As the cost of varsity athletics rise, forcing up student fees as well, and scandals continue to plague big-time college sports, some observers advocate club sports as a solution.
In a recent series of articles aimed at revamping college athletics, Sports Illustrated proposed making non-revenue varsity sports into club sports, pointing out that "it costs exponentially more to field a varsity team than it does a club, but the camaraderie and competition are similar."
That much is clear in The Citadel's locker room before a recent game, as music blares and jokes fly. The next morning, the guys would pack up the gear for a trip to Raleigh to play another rival school, VMI.
"Having this team to play on, it's a great release," the Bulldogs' Blazier said. "I don't think I'd be here if I didn't have hockey, especially that knob year. You get all that knobby anger, and hockey's a way to get it out of you productively."