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University club sports gaining popularity

It might be hard to tell right away that senior Matt Muller is a Florida State athlete.

The storm-trooper mask, sleek goggles and fat-barreled gun he cradles might have something to do with that. His gear along with a color-splotched shirt mark him as a paintball player.

Paintball? Running around in the woods playing soldier isn’t a college sport, is it?

Actually, yes.

Paintball is an official sport club at Florida State University, just like ice hockey, cricket, synchronized swimming, rugby and dozens of others that aren’t always part of college athletics.

They exist to fill the gap between varsity and intramurals, allowing students to organize and compete in sports they love but otherwise might not get to play. With 46 already and more on the way, anyone on campus can become a jock.

No matter how unlikely the game.

“I wouldn’t consider myself an athlete like the guys on the football team,” Muller said. “But it’s definitely an athletic sport. It requires the same sense of dedication.”

Just for the record, the FSU Speedball Team doesn’t play the sort of paintball that requires camouflage and trees.

This is a tournament version so popular it shows up on ESPN and is sanctioned by the National Collegiate Paintball Association.

Teams compete on grass fields dotted by inflatable obstacles and surrounded by safety nets. Players score by shooting each other with paint-filled gelatin balls that travel at 300 feet per second and hit with the stinging force of an older brother’s punch.

“It’s not as much war games as tag on steroids,” Muller said. “It’s an adrenaline rush like nothing I’ve ever done.

“If you try it once, you’ll be hooked.”

He was, the first time he played as a Tallahassee high-school student. That’s why he started the club when he enrolled at FSU four years ago.

It didn’t take long to spread the fever.

Last year, the team played at the national collegiate championships. Another year and the crew might be ready for the annual paintball World Cup in Orlando.

And, “we’re always looking for more people,” Muller said.

According to Assistant Director Travis Redeker, this is how the program works: Students pick a faculty adviser and apply to the university to form a club. The school checks to make sure the activity really is a sport and to assess its risk for injury. If it’s safe and supervised well enough, the club gets conditional approval.

Members have to practice, play and attend campuswide sport-club-council meetings for at least a year. Once they make it that far, the club gets a seat on the council and can apply for school money.

FSU budgets about $69,000 a year for all of the teams. The council votes on how to divide the money, and teams use their shares to help buy equipment and travel to competitions.

Heather McHugh’s been through it.

She was still in high school in South Florida when older friends taught her a sport they’d played in college.

Women’s Ultimate is kind of like basketball, but it’s played on a football field with a flying disc instead of a ball.

“I’ve played a bunch of sports softball, basketball and volleyball and Ultimate stands out,” she said. “There’s a good, healthy competition and a high level of skill, but it’s also a great atmosphere to be in.

“It’s not a sport of trash talking or rivalry.”

She scrounged up a club as a sophomore two years ago. She still laughs about trying to recruit and train players for a game most had never heard of.

“I basically started off trying to convince all my friends,” McHugh said. “With every person who showed up, it was like starting from scratch, literally.”

Now, she has a full team headed to a pre-season tournament this month at Appalachian State University.

Sure, FSU’s football team is probably tougher than most of the sport clubs, the kind of tough that comes from two-a-days with pads in the August heat.

But do they have as much heart?

Ice hockey captain Mark Mathews and his teammates are so committed to playing in a town that has no ice they’ll drive all the way to Orlando to practice. They schedule 22 games a season on the road.

Most of that travel money comes out of their own pockets. And they can pretty much forget all those great weekend parties.

So why do any of the clubs do it?

“It allows us to be part of the school, to represent FSU,” he said. “You’re not quite an athlete, but at the same time you are.”

That, and love of the game.

“I have to play hockey,” Mathews said. “It’s one of those things I guess you could say I’m addicted to. “If I’m not playing, I’m not happy.”

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