Penn Athletics has a variety of varsity sports teams, but it also hosts a wealth of club sports. These club teams can even be surprisingly successful — the men’s club basketball team, for instance, had a record-breaking year.
But for the best club athletes, just how easy — and common — is it to move up to the varsity level?
The latter question is easier to answer. Of all the varsity teams on campus right now, only a small number of athletes found their way via the sports’ respective club teams. Even those athletes lucky enough to get a varsity spot have found playing time hard to come by.
Senior Stephanie Honig, a field hockey player whose high school career was laden with accolades, did not get the chance to play the sport for Penn’s varsity program until her junior year. And unfortunately for her, in the last two years combined, Honig has played in a grand total of nine games and only started in one of those.
Another player who managed to earn a varsity spot after considerable tribulation is senior tennis player Zach Lessen.
Lessen’s story at Penn began with rejection.
“I didn’t know [Penn head coach David] Geatz too well before coming here,” Lessen said, “but I improved a lot my senior year and was able to get a tryout when I came here. I actually won a few challenge matches and lost close to guys in the lineup, but I still got cut anyway.”
So the then-freshman put his head down and went to work on the club team. He signed up for every possible practice — and even put in time on the weekends. And then, as every success story goes, he caught a little bit of good luck to top off his dedication.
“In the spring, I got lucky — Ivan Turudic quit the team,” Lessen said. “Coach Geatz saw I was working hard, and he gave me a spot.”
Lessen didn’t appear in any matches until his sophomore season, a time when he thought his place on the team would have been secure. Although he did not routinely play against highly-seeded opponents, Lessen accrued a respectable 13-4 record. In a surprising turn of events, however, the New Yorker was pitted in a match of survival. Win that challenge match, and he would stay on the team — lose, and he would have to return to club.
He went on to win that match and play for the team again in his junior year, but he knew after that that he couldn’t take his spot for granted.
“In the fall, I never thought my spot was safe, and this helped keep me focused [at] each practice — even now.”
So Lessen has had to better himself to stay on the varsity squad, but how does that reflect on the difference in quality between varsity and club? As it turns out, club really does have a lot of quality, as Lessen explained, but varsity is a whole different beast altogether.
“Vivek [Nimgaonkar] and some of the best club guys all played national juniors,” he said. “So it was solid practice, but varsity is another level, because the practices are longer and more intense for sure.”
Considering that the saying goes that “practice makes perfect,” one can imagine how club tennis players could make the jump to varsity. On the other hand, Lessen seemed to think it wasn’t as simple as that.
“I think it’s rare especially for tennis [to move from club to varsity],” he said. “I was only promised a spot on the team if I was definitively the top player on the [club] team and only made it after being persistent enough to not take ‘no’ for an answer. But if there was [sic] no spot available, I wouldn’t have ever gotten the chance.”
Whether there is ever another chance or not, no one for now can tell. Lessen and Honig both are seniors, and after their departures, the legacy of climbing up the Penn Athletics ladder could disappear with them.
Only time will tell if other club athletes can get their chance in the years to come.
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