When she graduated from USC in 2009 and found a job in Columbia coordinating special events for the Ronald McDonald House, Connecticut native Alex Nicyper never thought about networking. She’d been here for four years and was still close to her many college friends. But as the group moved to accept jobs in other cities, Alex soon found that her circle had spread out to the point where getting together was becoming more and more difficult. Looking to make a few new connections, Alex accepted an invitation to join an adult co-ed kickball team. She’s glad she did. “It’s been a great way to meet new friends and see all that Columbia has to offer outside of the University,” she says. “But it’s also helped professionally. The whole team helps with Wish List Drives, and they’ve really gotten the word out to people I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”
All over Columbia, young professionals like Alex are using courts, fields and rinks to meet new friends, stay in touch with old ones and make business contacts. One of the first things Marjorie Trowbridge did upon her return to Columbia after graduating from Clemson was join a tennis team. “It was my mom’s team, but within a year I’d met enough other young players and re-connected with friends here that we were able to start our own team,” she explains. “It’s so easy to lose touch with people, but tennis is scheduled, so we don’t miss it. Those weekly matches enable me to stay close with friends whom I might not otherwise see.” For Marjorie, Tuesday nights when her team plays is one of her favorite nights of the week. “We wait until everyone is finished playing, then go out to dinner. It’s a great night with girlfriends, old and new.”
Although traditional sports like softball, soccer, football, basketball and tennis might lead the pack in terms of popularity, young professionals are also embracing off-beat sports for their after-work play time. Richland County is trying to get a dodge ball league off the ground, and Columbia’s Women’s Roller Derby League is picking up steam as more and more women around the county strap on their kneepads and hit the rink. But the sport getting all the attention is kickball, which has taken the region by storm. “Kickball is more relaxed than softball,” says Justin Cox, a geologist who, like most adults, hadn’t played the game since elementary school. “Everybody has played at one point or another, and even if it hasn’t been since third grade, you can still have fun. You don’t need to be insanely coordinated, either.”
Megan Plott, marketing director for the YMCA in the Columbia region, which manages flag football, volleyball, soccer, tennis, basketball and other team sports, attributes the popularity of adult leagues to the fact that many professionals are looking for something to do with friends besides going to happy hour. “Some people were athletes in high school or college, others are just looking to be active, others want to learn a new sport,” she says. “It’s pure fun.” Megan, a Virginia native who graduated from USC in 2007, is going into her fourth season playing on a co-ed kickball team. “We started as just a group of people who wanted to do something after work, but over the years we’ve gotten to be great friends and see each other outside of kickball,” she notes. “It’s a good mix of locals and people new to the area.”
After playing on several softball teams throughout the years, Vista Insurance Group president Cecilia Fournil was skeptical about making the switch to kickball. “I thought, kickball, really?” laughs the former USC women’s golf team member. “But I just had to try it.” Although the competition wasn’t as serious as it had been on the softball field, Cecilia was surprised by the skill she saw displayed on the field. “Outs are easier to come by than you’d think,” she notes. “The ball comes into the plate with some serious spin. Against a good pitcher, it’s tough to get a good kick.” When Cecilia started playing kickball, there were so few teams that everyone played against everyone else, no matter the level. Today, with almost 60 teams in the league, there’s room for divisions, so new teams can play against other novices and not last year’s city champions.
But what Cecilia really enjoys about the game is its party-like atmosphere. “Softball games can go on for hours, which can turn the evening into a pressure cooker,” she explains. “Kickball is just as competitive, but it’s more exciting since games are limited to an hour. The rules that have been instituted to keep the games short end up making them super fast-paced. It’s fun because no one ends up standing around, and the whole scene is casual.” Justin Cox agrees. “It’s a lot harder than you remember, but it’s still a blast.”
Another benefit of the short-game cycle is that it leaves the rest of the evening free to take the party somewhere else, which is usually the bar or restaurant that sponsors the team. “You actually have the time and energy to really chat with people,” says Cecilia. “The sport is so popular that we’ve sponsored teams for several years.”
Bethany Human, a Dallas native who works in communications and social media for TM Floyd & Company, wasn’t sure she even remembered how to play kickball when she first joined a team. Now she’s hooked and considers her teammates to be some of her closest friends. But she finds that the best thing about being on a kickball team is that it’s an instant conversation starter. “It’s such a fun conversation, and you instantly form a connection with the person you just met. You find a common ground and build on that connection, and isn’t that what networking is all about?”
Regardless of which sport they choose, for young professionals, sports night is also great way to get out and see friends. “Our sponsor is a restaurant, and we enjoy hanging out there after games to support them,” says Alex.
Singles aren’t the only ones who can benefit from joining a sports team. In search of a sport they could play together, Leslie and Brett McCutchan decided on softball then joined a local team. Not only have they gotten to be friends with a number of other couples, but, through another personal trainer on the team, Leslie has expanded her professional network as well. “Playing on a team is really a fun dynamic,” reports Leslie. “It’s competitive without being crazy, you’re doing something fun, and you get to meet new people. We love it.”
How to Play
Richland County offers softball and tennis for both men and women and flag football and basketball for men. For information visit www.richlandcountyrecreation.com.
Lexington County is all about softball. Visit www.lcrac.com.
The City of Columbia offers co-ed kickball, basketball for men and women and three softball leagues: men, women and co-ed. For information email Corrin Taylor at email@example.com.
Quad Squad Roller Derby. For information visit www.columbiaquadsquad.com.
Football, volleyball, soccer, tennis and basketball are offered through the region’s five area YMCAs. For information on what’s offered at each location, visit www.columbiaymca.org.