Started from the bottom

Photo: Matt Eisenberg
Photo: Matt Eisenberg

Head coach Becky Carlson’s office walls are covered with rugby team photos, Quinnipiac University emblems and a Justin Bieber poster.

“We always try to get Justin to tweet at us before a game,” Carlson said. “But he’s busy.”

Carlson and her team have many causes – the Biebs being only one of them. The players have used their team Facebook page to raise awareness for women in sports, cystic fibrosis, and have raised money for their own to go to elite rugby camps and programs. But perhaps their biggest crusade of all has been to simply make a name for themselves on the Quinnipiac campus.

And at this season’s home opener, they played in front of the largest crowd yet.

“It’s nice to see support,” senior co-captain Jenn Salomon said. “Our opening game against Army was probably the most I’ve ever seen in all my four years here, combined.”

The team’s postseason play ended last year with a loss to Navy in the ACRA National Tournament Quarterfinals. The women went 15-1 the year prior, winning the Tri-State Conference, and taking third place in the National Tournament. That’s two post-season runs for a program that had only been around for three years.

“That wasn’t supposed to ever happen,” Carlson said, smiling.

It took teamwork. It meant not giving up, even though the players felt their team’s recognition failed to match their level of accomplishments. It took dedication.

“There’s been times when I just want to kind of quit,” Salomon said, “… but it’s totally worth it.”

“[Carlson says] there’s a reason why we’re doing this. It’s not just because we want to play rugby. It’s all about creating opportunities for everyone else that’s coming in and for other little girls playing rugby, that they’ll have the opportunity to play this at a collegiate level, a serious level.”

The varsity women’s rugby program is one of 14 women’s teams now at the university, compared to the seven male teams. Its addition was part of Athletic Director Jack McDonald’s efforts to join the Emerging Sport Initiative, while Carlson was the Emerging Sports program manager at USA Rugby.

“It’s not just because we want to play rugby. It’s all about creating opportunities for everyone else that’s coming in.” – Jenn Salomon, co-captain

Quinnipiac was the second Division I school in the nation to add the sport. This September, Quinnipiac was one of eight NCAA institutions to form the National Collegiate Varsity Women’s Rugby Association, intended to push varsity women’s rugby programs towards prominence at other schools and provide more opportunities for women in rugby.

This year, Carlson and assistant coach Michelle Reed brought in the largest recruiting class yet. These recruits are some of the most highly sought-after women in the world of rugby. They know the sport coming in their first year; Salomon, for example, didn’t.

Seventy women tried out for the Quinnipiac University women’s rugby team in spring of 2011. Yet most of the women who tried out had never even touched a rugby ball before.

“The closest thing I knew about rugby was probably the movie Invictus,” Salomon said.

Many of the players who made it past tryouts dropped out, Carlson said. The jam-packed schedule and intense conditioning were difficult for many to keep up with.

“I don’t think there could have been a harder process than trying to be a part of the team,” Carlson said. But making the decisions wasn’t easy either. She had half-hour meetings with each of the students interested in joining.

Those who remained became the first members of the only full-contact NCAA women’s sport at the university, but they went 3-6-1 in their first season.

“Everyone thought that we weren’t serious, and obviously, we sucked,” Salomon said. “We were bad.”

But both Carlson and assistant coach Michelle Reed made it clear to her and the other players that joining the team would be just as rewarding as it was challenging.

And for a new program, a new coach and athletes with little to no rugby experience, Carlson said they beat expectations across the board. People doubted they would even score a try.

Yet Carlson and Reed have a strategy for training players at various skill levels. They require all players to subscribe to the specific “brand of Bobcat rugby.” Both new and old teammates are trained the same.

“That’s why when we take walk-ons – kids that are athletic, that can come in and play rugby,” Carlson said. “They can get into the mix quicker because they are doing the same things along with the vets.”

Some of these recruited players, like sophomore co-captain Maggie Myles, have grown up playing rugby and bring a bit of experience to the roster.  Her grandfather and father both coach rugby, and her older brother and three younger sisters play. Like other recruits, Myles has played for elite teams like USA Rugby, yet Carlson and Reed ask all of them to forget what they know from high school and their All-Star teams.

“Somebody like Maggie who has played for seven, eight years and has such a deep history, she’s still learning stuff every single day,” Carlson said. “We had to tear her down completely.”

With this mindset, they have transformed the program and themselves, and Salomon said they have their eyes on another try at the NCAA tournament this season.

“Can the fourth time be the charm?” she asked.