For sports fans in Rhode Island, back-to-school season means getting ready to watch the Brown Bears, Providence Friars, Rhode Island Rams, and more. But beyond the rah-rahs, there are coaches and athletes doing important work to create accessible spaces for students to compete.
One of the fastest growing programs in college athletics today didn’t exist a generation ago. Electronic sports, or esports, is competition centered around video gaming, which has been elevated in recent years with major tournaments now televised on ESPN. At New England Institute of Technology (NEIT), e-gaming is a college sport like any other, with player recruitment and try-outs, athletic scholarships, professional coaching, and an emphasis on developing a winning culture.
The private, non-profit technical university takes esports seriously as an academic program and a varsity-level sport, hiring coaches and supplying state-of-the-art computer equipment for players. “It’s a little more serious than a student-run club,” says Brandon Eigenbrode, esports coordinator and head coach of the NEIT team. “It’s definitely getting a lot more popular; the Rhode Island Interscholastic League added esports, and this year we hosted the championship. A bunch of high schools came in and got to see the space we use.”
Currently, the NEIT Tigers field over 20 students playing across four different games: Valorant, Overwatch, Rocket League, and Super Smash Brothers. The program is relatively new with 2022-23 being its inaugural year playing in the National Esports Collegiate Conference. Like traditional sports, activities include team practice, professional coaching, and reviewing tape results of prior games, much like a football team would do on a Monday morning. Games are live-streamed on Twitch, an interactive live-streaming service.
“Every week, you play a match with a different school,” says Eigenbrode. “We take screenshots of the scores, and you post them on a score channel. There’s a live spreadsheet that lets you know how each team is doing.” Unlike most varsity teams, the sport is co-ed, and Eigenbrode is working to recruit more women in a sport that has historically been male-dominated. “Since we started our fall season, there has been a larger female presence in the esports center. It’s something I want to see in the future.”
Coaches focus on growth and success. “It is similar to coaching a traditional sport; there is a lot of conditioning,” explains Eigenbrode. “There is also game knowledge that goes into it. For example, in Valorant, every single gun has a different recoil pattern, so we review things like shooting your gun, understanding which way your gun is going to move, and using your mouse to counteract that. It’s a lot of small learning, and it varies greatly for each game.”
The team has already experienced some success; in the 2022-2023 season, they won in two divisions, the New England Collegiate Conference (NECC) Rocket League Emergents Atlantic Division, as well as the NECC Valorant Challengers Northeast Division. It’s serious business but a lot of fun, and students bond over the shared experience. “A lot of students can be introverted in college, and this has really helped many students meet people with similar interests,” adds Eigenbrode. Learn more at NEIT.edu/esports
What role does social media play in recruiting college athletes? More than you might think. Women’s bowling is one of the newest sports programs to come to Bryant University and the only Division 1 team in Rhode Island. This year was the inaugural season for the all-freshmen squad, which saw the rookie Bulldog Bowlers compete against more experienced teams.
Bowling at Bryant evolved from a club sport to a Division 1 program in 2022. With all new players filling the roster, coach Morgan Walsh had a rare opportunity to build a team from the ground up. Equally important for the rookie bowlers, the group had an opportunity to define its identity as a team. “Bryant added women’s rowing, women’s golf, and women’s bowling as an initiative to get more women on campus,” says Walsh. “The bowling team was made up of all first-year students.”
Despite its nationwide popularity, bowling is not a competitive sport on most college campuses in our region. “I relocated from Buffalo to take the position,” explains Walsh. “High school bowling in New York is pretty popular. Coming here to New England and seeing that there was no high school bowling at all – that was a big change.”
Walsh began recruiting players from New York, New Jersey, and other areas where the sport is more popular. She spent a lot of time on social media, direct messaging potential players who were following established college programs. “Probably half of our current team came from Instagram. My number one priority was to build our Instagram following because kids are so involved in social media,” says Walsh.
With Walsh’s contagious enthusiasm for a bright future ahead at Bryant, the team came together quickly. “It was a very unique situation; they got to start the program from the ground up, which is something that very few individuals get to do,” explains Walsh. “There was a lot of conversation on what they wanted the program to look like. They really bought into the idea that it was theirs to create and mold. There was a lot of open communication, and a lot of trial and error, too. When you’re on more established teams, that opportunity isn’t always available.”
With only four schools in New England offering varsity level programs, the “bowldogs,” as they are affectionately known, travel a lot. “We livestream most of our events and some of the kids on the other Bryant teams support us by watching,” adds Walsh. The team expects to host its first tournament in 2024. Our kids train just as hard as other Division 1 athletes. They put in many hours on the lanes.” Learn more at BryantBulldogs.com
No doubt, many college athletes face challenges above and beyond their sport. Academics, finances, and social pressure are more than enough to handle for most students. For former Roger Williams University field hockey player Morgan Foley, a diagnosis of autism during her senior year became a significant hurdle. Foley made the courageous decision to go public and announce her diagnosis, which led to her developing an Instagram account that has amassed almost 50,000 followers.
Being part of a team was critical for the criminal justice major, who graduated in May, 2023. “I played field hockey at Roger Williams all four years,” she says. “Coming in and being on a sports team was how I survived college. It was like an accommodation, it was helpful to me, being autistic and ADHD. I’m someone who doesn’t make friends easily. It gave me my friends; it gave me everything.”
Roger Williams coach Jill Reeve, who is entering her second year, met Foley last fall. “She was a senior on the team,” says Reeve. “Initially she was very cautious; she told me she was going through some things. It wasn’t until very late in the season that she told me she had been diagnosed with autism. It was disorienting for her because her identity shifted radically. The pressures of senior year in college are challenging for any student, but more so for a student who is diagnosed with a condition.”
The announcement helped bring the team together. “It was a wonderful moment for the team,” continues Reeve. “She was letting them in. Sometimes, in a very competitive setting, the athlete tends not to share because it could work against them. The coach may see somebody struggling as a weakness, and the athlete might not get playing time.”
“As a coach, I learned a lot from Morgan. She is a strong communicator, even though she often communicates differently from others. I feel I’ll take forward the lessons I’ve learned through our interactions,” adds Reeve. “With an athlete like Morgan, when communication is different, the way that information is interpreted, there can be disjointed communication, I think that is a lesson for coaches.”
Now an alum, Foley continues to be active on Instagram and TikTok sharing her story and the challenges she faces. “I knew that I wanted to be super open about it. When you get diagnosed with autism, especially later in life, you have this whole realization; you learn that your lifestyle is not sustainable. That’s why I had such a hard time. I was not getting the accommodations, the support before. I knew that I had to make major life changes, my lifestyle was not designed for an autistic ADHD-er.”
Her videos are instructive and entertaining and serve to support her journey and educate the public at large. “I needed people to understand my brain, so I thought why not tell everybody? I thought, if this is happening to me, it’s happening to other people too.” Follow on Instagram @MorganFoley; RWUHawks.com
STEM to Stern is a hands-on program through Brown University and the Narragansett Boat Club that brings together science and sports. Run by volunteers, the free program brings rowing and science lessons to middle school students from the Providence area. The initiative was born when Kristi Wharton, biology professor and president of the Narragansett Boat Club, and men’s rowing coach Paul Cooke were discussing ways to make the sport more inclusive.
“Being a scientist, as soon as I heard the name, STEM to Stern (STS), I thought it was a great idea,” says Wharton. The program, based in science, technology, engineering, and math, hosts summer sessions and twice-weekly classes during the school year. Intended to be fun, exploratory, and experimental, classes meet on the Brown campus, where activity-based lessons are led by faculty and students. STS students practice rowing as part of the Narragansett Boat Club’s youth program at the club’s boathouse in Fox Point.
The classroom experience is directly connected to the sport. “Our first session was all about water. We bring in ecology, chemistry, we measure the pH, we look at the organisms living in water,” explains Wharton. “We had a session on the physics of rowing. We try to tie the concepts to what they are actually doing on the water.”
Historically, rowing had a reputation of being a sport for students at elite universities; one of Cooke’s goals is to broaden the pool of potential college rowers by including everyone. “As tough as the competition is, it’s still not representative of every potential athlete,” he says. “It’s wonderful to see the demographic changing; you see kids from all around the community out on the water now. You didn’t see that 10 or 15 years ago.”
Cooke sees this program as a development tool, hoping that one day, a participant might be eligible for a college team. “My vision is to bring in people who want to be high performance athletes, from all parts of the community to potentially race at Brown on other university programs or national teams. I get really excited about the competitive aspect.” Learn more at RowNBC.org, StemToSternRowing.org
For sports fans, nothing beats the thrill of watching college teams compete. Here are five good reasons to buy tickets to games this season.
School: Brown University
Team: Brown Bears
Best Bet: Football
Why: Even non-fans can’t help but enjoy themselves watching Ivy League teams toss the pigskin on a sunny fall afternoon.
400 Elmgrove Avenue, Providence
School: Bryant University
Team: Bryant Bulldogs
Best Bet: Football
Why: The Bulldogs are hungry as the team embarks on its second season in the Big South/Ohio Valley Conference.
1150 Douglas Pike, Smithfield
School: Providence College
Team: Providence Friars
Best Bet: Men’s Soccer
Why: Behind coach Craig Stewart, the talented team has high hopes of making the NCAA tournament this year.
1 Cunningham Square, Providence
School: Rhode Island College
Team: RIC Anchorwomen
Best Bet: Women’s Soccer
Why: With a can-do attitude, the Anchorwomen look to rebound after a frustrating 2022 season.
600 Mount Pleasant Avenue, Providence
School: University of Rhode Island
Team: URI Rams
Best Bet: Football
Why: On the heels of two winning seasons, hopes are high for a
3 Keaney Road, Kingston
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here