After a fantastic season for York Sport, seeing nine teams promoted, multiple cup finals reached, and the beating of last year’s BUCS point total by 144.5, with fixtures left to play, an interview with the driving force behind this, York Sport President, Cassandra Brown, felt like an absolute necessity. Always happy to fulfil her media duties, the ever-cheerful Cass met me at the YUSU Centre, and we sat down to discuss her first year in office.
As is always the case, talk began with a discussion of BUCS rankings, and #Top40, one of the distinguishing features of York Sport’s season: “Continuing Charlotte Winter’s aim to get us into the top 40 was a big priority of mine, and I’m glad I set that as our target,” Cass commented. “There was a point in the year when we were 33rd where I was thinking ‘Maybe we should have gone for top 30, and been a bit more ambitious’, but I think top 40 is most realistic – I think we’ve got a good chance of remaining there for the rest of the year.”
So, could we have broken into the top 35? “I was thinking about this the other day, and I was thinking, maybe top 38, but that doesn’t have a ring to it, so in terms of that being a campaign, it’s quite difficult to make look sexy. Top 40 is great – it’s such a catchy hashtag. Top 35, I really don’t know. We do really well in certain sports. What we need to do now is consolidate where we’re at, with better athletes, better coaching – it’s all that kind of performance-based stuff, which currently we’re lacking.” Ultimately, the main aim of finishing inside the top 40 was achieved, with York finishing 39th in the overall BUCS table – the University’s highest-placed finish in nearly a decade.
The perceived lack of funding for sport at York is something often aired by frustrated athletes, and clearly a desire to change this has been paramount to Cass’s approach this year. “We’ve had £10,000 extra funding, and with the Sport Union fee, we could have as much as £40,000 a year to put back into our students’ sporting experience, which would be fantastic. Obviously that’s coming out of students’ pockets – it does go back into the student experience – but we’ll see what students want. As well as that, just banging on the door of the University constantly, and making them realise that sport is a massive factor in student experience,” Brown said.
“We need the University’s backing, but also, one thing I didn’t do this year which I’m looking into at the moment, is getting a wider sponsor for York Sport. We’ll also look to work with the University and their partners; we have a great relationship with the fundraising and alumni department, and they have their relationships with external bodies.
“But it’s also about working with student recruitment, and so one of my big focuses next year is making sure we’re recruiting the best athletes in the country.”
The discussion then moved on to some of these athletes, at which Cass lit up, enthusing with genuine affection and excitement about the ‘golden’ Bobbi Philips, and achievements of other sports scholars. It is about securing future athletes, though, that matters most over the coming years to the York Sport President as she enters her final year in office.
“I’m bringing clubs and their coaches onto campus to make sure that they’re appealing to and talking to prospective students and their parents, and I also want to make sure that we’ve got a presence at clearing as well. I think clearing is probably our best bet in the short term in climbing that BUCS ladder. I mean, look at the facilities we’ve got: they’re constantly expanding.”
Facilities have indeed been transformed this season, with a new athletics track, velodrome, strength and conditioning suite, and AstroTurf pitch all to enhance York Sport’s infrastructure next season.
However, York are still a fair way behind major sporting universities, and so the question of even greater expansion is surely one on Cass’s mind, which comes through from speaking to her.
”Making the tent a permanent structure, and creating more indoor hall space is a huge priority. I’m currently pushing for students to get on the lake on Heslington East, so water sports can actually train on campus. I’d love to see more Sports Hall space, better squash courts, and another 3G pitch.
“We’re crying out for all-weather pitches, I mean, we saw what happened over Christmas this year, with the incredibly rainy season we had. But short term fixes as well, such as vertidraining, to keep the pitches playable, is what I’m pushing for. We’ve been so lucky with the facilities we’ve had – I feel so greedy saying ‘let’s do this, let’s do that’.
“One thing I do want to do, actually, is make the facilities we have more branded, in terms of Black and Gold, because you go to Durham, you go to Northumbria, and their branding is everywhere. I think that when externals come onto campus, they need to see that this is York’s – this is Black and Gold. It’s such a strong colour base and such a strong brand.”
Plans for pre-season are already being formulated, to ensure York’s sporting improvement continues, which is another area that Brown is keen to work further on. “As clichéd as it sounds, I want to get bigger names on campus – a couple of years ago we had Ali Rose, who is Jess Ennis-Hill’s physiotherapist; I want to get her back, and people of the same standard.
“Speed training, training techniques, and also establishing a better working relationship between coaches and the York Sport Union from the outset are other things. Making pre-season more of a ‘thing’, and having more union across the clubs, as well, because in the past they’ve tended to do their own thing, but I think we should do more together, and get that buy in from everyone.”
The next passage of conversation was dominated by my waxing lyrical about the Lacrosse Club’s next season, which I finally noticed, apologising for monologuing so extensively. Cass just laughed. “The keener you are, the further you’ll go,” she says, and it is clear from this meeting that drive and enthusiasm are certainly not qualities she lacks.
Following on from talk of pre-season was the topic of College Varsity, which had its inaugural tournament at York this year. “Varsity? Amazing,” enthused Brown. “There was one point when we could have drawn with Durham, in the netball seconds’ match, which was amazing. Obviously we didn’t in the end, but comparing how much money they put into their college programme, to see that we can actually match up to Durham and we can stand up to the test is impressive. The atmosphere was incredible, and I think that’s just going to snowball, with the tournament expanding year on year.”
Elsewhere, tournament-wise, and certainly to be discussed, was Roses, which certainly impressed Brown. “I was bowled over by what they did – the stadium was so cool, even the little touches – the red lanterns on the trees as you walk into the Roses Village were great, and the food stalls, and just everything about it made it a really nice atmosphere.
“I think there are a few things to be said about Lancaster sportsmanship at times, as has been commented on in the last few weeks. York did so, so well – I’m really proud of them. I think this year we just lost out on a few games that we would normally win, which lost us those vital points. I can’t wait for next year, it’s going to be amazing. At Lancaster, I had my note section up on my phone, and everywhere I went, I was writing things down that they did that I thought we could do better, and gathering ideas.”
To end our talk, I brought out a real cliché, and asked for a high and a low for the season. “So much has happened, I wish I’d kept a diary or something. But, I think genuinely, the biggest low was the Women’s Basketball fixture at Roses – that confirmed Lancaster’s win and the dream of winning away had been crushed completely. It upset me more than I thought it would. Losing my own Roses match was also tough – this is the fourth Roses I’ve played in, and it was the first time I’d lost. To be the one trying to drive an away win, but to lose my own match was just awful. Credit to the Lancaster women though; they’ve improved so much in the last year!
“High-wise, maybe the day when we realised we’d got nine promotions, which is awesome – the most we’ve ever got. Just sharing in the joy of the clubs; I’m not really part of anybody’s team, but the wider team, that means so much to me.”
Cass has certainly been a recognisable figure on BUCS Wednesdays, travelling from the 3G to the JLD, the 22 to the racquet sport courts and back again. “That’s my favourite part of the job, going to watch the sport and getting involved. I don’t hate being stuck at my desk, but would much rather be out there with everybody.
“There’s just tonnes that I’ve tried to do. I’ve not been able to do everything – I’m only one woman – but I think as a Union we’ve had our best year ever. Obviously I’ve got the clubs to thank for that; it’s not just me. I hope that I’ve helped drive them to that goal, and hopefully next year we can climb higher up the BUCS ladder.”
York is undeniably a sporting force in ascension, and this upwards trajectory can only continue with someone as enthusiastic and driven at the helm.