Coming Full Circle: For Quinnipiac Women’s Rugby, Seeing is Believing

Juliana Nikac and Phil Akre

Quinnipiac’s women’s rugby team has come a long way in its seventh year of existence. It hasn’t been earned easily. Innovative philosophies and trust have brought the team unparalleled levels of success. The cycle has come around.

There was never any doubt.

Becky Carlson knew her team was going to leave the pitch, on that fateful Sunday afternoon in November, as champions. This time, though, for the third straight year.

The clock ticked down as the final minute slowly crawled towards the end of what had been an incredible, emotional and well-deserved match. If there had ever been a time to see the physical embodiment of the phrase, “We did it,” this was it.

Carlson exchanged smiles with her assistant coaches, Colleen Doherty and Brad Dufek, as the fans and players eagerly waited for the clock to finally hit zero.

With the clock at zero and the final play just about over, cheers erupted, players hugged each other, cried and stormed the field. Dartmouth, knowing they had fought well against the Quinnipiac rugby machine, looked onwards with solemn faces.

In the heat of the moment, the thrill of a third-straight national championship, Carlson defined the ultimate sense of cool. She turned around to her bench with a slight grin on her face, holding up a yellow t-shirt in her hands with the word “believe” etched on its back.

The moment was a microcosm of the entire season; staying calm, cool and patient in the biggest of moments. They believed.

It had been just two months and two weeks since her squad had fallen in just its second game of the year to Dartmouth. The affair was a back-and-forth, questionably officiated and difficult road loss. It proved to be an eye-opener and eventually, what made the season so successful.

“We had some serious gut checks,” Carlson said of the loss. “You lose early in the season and you recognize that no one was going to let you walk into their house. It had us laser-focused on the things that we needed to be better at.”

It wasn’t just the loss that helped. It certainly wasn’t the recognition. The two-time defending national champions didn’t have their own home field until the 2017 season. With the sport in its infancy, the last thing Carlson and her team looked for was the coverage.

It was the mentality. As Carlson put it, real champions don’t bait anyone, they attack and go out for the kill.

“The general assumption from people at the start of the season was that we could win the third championship,” senior Flora Poole said. “That’s where you are most vulnerable.”

Panic, worry, or as Poole put it, “frazzlement”; these are all emotions that the team never felt from then on. Even if the opposition opened matches by scoring first in bunches, the Bobcats never felt pressured or worried about their chances.

“There was always a sense of calmness and more of a let’s fix it kind of attitude. It was relaxed, not hectic,” Poole said.

As Carlson walked slowly onto the field as her team cried, laughed and rejoiced in the moment, she looked around and took everything in. A program in its seventh year in existence had just captured its third national championship, the school’s third, with rugby owning them all.

They had won their third championship, except this time, it was different. There was a real, live television broadcast. There was a press conference, with seats, microphones and a National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA) banner delicately hung above Carlson and her players during interviews.

These are all typically mainstays of any collegiate gamer regardless of sport, but for Quinnipiac rugby, it signaled a stepping stone.

“It solidified NIRA,” graduate student Tayler Schussler reflected. “Making it real, with a board, a chairperson, it became a high profile tournament. It was an immensely prideful thing.”

Pride is something that Schussler, along with the rest of the seniors, can take with them as they leave behind a program that has outdone itself over the past four years. If anything, they’ve built a culture that appears to be set in place for a long, long time. The concept of replacement doesn’t apply to the program.

They thrive off of change.

“We never say starters and subs. We say starter’s and reinforcements. We feel confident in every person we put out there, and they all bring something different to the table,” Carlson reflected.

The key word is “we.” It’s never a one-man job. The team recognizes that they won’t be able to replace anyone. It’s a unique approach to a part of sports that is usually met with difficulty.

“We’re excited to build off the foundation that players have made for us,” assistant coach Colleen Doherty said.

The weeks following the championship were filled with excitement, reflection and pride. The rugby pitch sat and grew colder as snow set in while temperatures dropped.

Eventually, the season will return, with new players in the program and those who left their mark on their own paths. At the same time, Quinnipiac rugby is only just beginning down its path to notoriety around the country.

“Every time I wear a shirt with QU Rugby on it, someone always says that they’ve heard of us,” Schussler remarked.

Like the end of the championship game itself, it appeared that at last, things had come full circle.

Like Carlson’s shirt said, all you have to do is believe.