The Vassar women’s rugby team opened its spring 2017 season with a trip abroad. Members of the team, lead by Head Coach Tony Brown, played three matches over the span of 10 days in Barcelona, Spain.
Sophomore Makena Emery explained the purpose of the trip, stating, “Every year Coach Brown organizes a spring break tour to an international destination to allow the team travel to experience new cultures, while playing a sport that we all love. Rugby culture outside of the U.S. is significantly more popular and widespread, so it’s really great for the team, which predominately consists of players who have never even touched a rugby ball before coming to college, to gain experience and develop more of an understanding for the game.”
The first game was played on Tuesday, March 14 at Spain’s oldest and most famous rugby club, Unió Esportiva Santboiana. It was the team’s first game since they defeated the United States Coast Guard Academy 15-10 on Dec. 4 in Greenville, SC, to take home the title of third in the nation.
Understandably, the team started off a little slow, as they have not practiced outdoors since before their trip to South Carolina in the winter.
“We’ve been preparing in our off season by having indoor practices based more on fundamentals and skill building rather than the aggressive physicality we experience in practice during the season. We’ve also been hitting the weight room a lot, though, so we were working on building our strength, and letting that help us in tackling and rucking,” explained sophomore Kate Sworden.
20 minutes into the game, following numerous turnovers and errors, the Brewers were down 12-5, as senior Nathalie Freeman scored Vassar’s only points with a try.
Nevertheless, momentum shifted early in the second half as junior Michelle Urrutia intercepted a pass close to the UES goal line and scored to make it 12-10. The final two tries of the match went to seniors Mariah Ghant and Lauren Workman, pushing the Brewers ahead of Unió Esportiva Santboiana with a final score of 29-12.
Despite coming off of a huge win over a strong international opponent just one day prior, back-to-back games proved to be difficult for the Brewers against such talented competition. The Instituto Nacional de Educacion Fisica is a combination of players from the physical education department of the University of Barcelona and international players, as the team is also an open club.
Four players on the Instituto Nacional de Educacion Fisica play for international teams including Maria Lasada, Angela del Pan and Maria Casado, who all play for the Spanish women’s national team. Similarly, Instituto Nacional de Educacion Fisica’s Alicia Stone is on the German national sevens team. Both del Pan and Casado played in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Facing professional competition, VC was unfortunately held scoreless throughout the match. The Brewers lost 0-41, yet the score did not reflect how well Vassar played. Specifically, the defense put up an incredibly strong fight, highlighted by sophomore Rachel Elson, who started at fullback and had one of the best games of her career. Freeman and sophomore Jennie To also made multiple big tackles in an attempt to keep the game competitive.
After such a difficult loss, the team had five days to recover and explore before heading into its final game against Manresa XV on Tuesday, March 21. The days off were spent sightseeing and exploring everything Barcelona has to offer.
Reminscing on the experience, Sworden recalled, “While we did only play three games, the games stick with you for a long time, in terms of bruises and soreness, so the days off we had were great for recuperating. That’s not to say we just stayed in bed resting, though.”
Sworden continued, “We saw almost all the major sites there are in Barcelona, La Boqueria, La Rambla, Park Guell, La Sagrada Familia and more, often walking miles even on our off days, taking in the cuisine and sights. We also had a few practices where we’d focus on our game play and strategy and stretch out so we were ready for the next game. There was a really fun practice we had on the beach playing touch rugby in the sand.”
Many memories and photographs later, the Brewers competed in their final match of the trip against Manresa XV. Vassar handily emerged victorious, surpassing its competition 58-15.
This win was even more impressive when you note the number of rookies who received playing time and starting nods. Many older players played out of position as well. Elson had yet another amazing performance abroad as she was able to notch a team-leading three tries to secure the win for Vassar.
Reflecting on her first ever rugby game, freshman scrumhalf Lindsey “Sam” Sample stated, “I’m a rookie and a freshman so I obviously don’t see a lot of playing time, but for the last game Coach Brown started a lot of us rookies. It was terrifying honestly, because I felt that we were representing Vassar and the USA abroad so I wanted to play well, and I didn’t feel ready to play my position yet; the first few minutes were really rough, but like Tony and all of my teammates say, the best way to learn rugby is by being thrown into an actual game and figuring it out as you go. It was really fun and I learned a lot.”
Nevertheless, Sample and the other beginners posted strong performances and contributed to the Vassar win.
In response to the Barcelona competitors, Coach Brown referenced some advantages that the team’s competitors have over the Brewers. Coach Brown explained, “The teams we played had locker rooms! This was, and is, a huge factor as players not only can get a shower after the game but bond as a team.”
Nevertheless, Coach Brown acknowledges the benefits of competing against such talented opponents as well as traveling as a team. Coach Brown stated, “The main benefit is building team spirit. The men and women also get to know each other.”
Reiterating the benefits of the trip, junior Andi Ramsey shared, “With regards to rugby, it was fun getting to interact with players from other countries with whom we don’t necessarily have a lot in common other than our love for the sport. It was also wonderful to play outside on grass after many months inside. My favorite aspect outside of rugby was getting to spend a lot of time with my teammates. The weather and food were also pretty wonderful.”
Ramsey continued, “The trip helps a lot for a few reasons. It helps to get a few games in before April, and many players were able to try new positions or play with different combinations of people. After a successful trip abroad, it looks like we’ll definitely have some more wins this season.”
The team returned to the states on March 22, arriving at Vassar later in the week as classes resumed on the 27th. The Brewers were scheduled to have a quick turn-around and face Poughkeepsie rival Marist College on Sunday, March 26. However, the match was postponed due to weather conditions, and the team had another week to practice at home.
On Saturday, April. 1, the Brewers exploded for their first home game of the season on the Vassar Farm. The squad defeated the University of Connecticut in a low scoring match ending in 15-5.
For VC to earn the win, Elson, Urrutia and sophomore Oshana Reich each scored a try. The game was also highlighted by long Vassar possessions and counter-attacks from Elson. Due to Uconn’s relatively weak kicking performance, Elson was able to gain possession and make strong runs.
However, the squad did not only excel on offense, as the defense side held strong and had notable performances. Senior Laila Blumenthal-Rothchild had a phenomenal tackle in the second half, taking down one of UConn’s strongest runners. Sophomore Miranda Scarlata and juniors Abby Alexander and Alicia Menard-Livingston also all contributed significantly on the defensive end.
With its win over UConn, the team advances its monumental overall record to 15-3 and spring record 3-1. The Brewers look to continue on their winning streak as travel to their first away games of the spring season.
The team will first face Saint Michael’s College, who finished in the Elite 8 last fall, in Colchester, VT. on April 8. The very next day, VC will head to Stony Brook University for the TriState 7s tournament.