“Rugby is a sport that celebrates differences–in size, speed, strength–and gives everyone a place where they can give their all. Rugby brings out strength in people that they never knew they had. Whatever ‘strength’ means or looks like to you, that’s beautiful.” -Junior Elizabeth Bennet
This past weekend the Vassar men’s and women’s rugby teams traveled to Middletown, RI to compete in the Beast of the East Tournament. The women came back with an incredible win as the champions of the Division II bracket. Both brackets consisted of 18 different schools from throughout the Northeast. The spring season holds a more developmental focus in that it is a time to start preparing for the competition in the fall. This results in giving some newer members more playing time while letting seniors take a step back and get some much needed rest. Coach Tony Brown had confidence in his teams going into the tournament, fully expecting the women to win their division. Senior women’s captain Darienne Jones explained, “Our team has grown in size and spirit this year. Physicality is a crucial component of the game but it manifests itself mentally even more so. This year my team really stepped up and I expect that sentiment to last.” Additionally Coach Brown added, “The incredible squad spirit is wonderful to see but what makes me most proud is that the teams play with such great pride and represent the college well. Both the men and women play fair and even when things don’t go their way they respond well and are a credit to Vassar College.”
A small hiccup came when senior captain Cierra Thomas broke her fibula in the quarterfinals against Springfield, however the team was quick to fill in the gap and go on winning. “My left fibula is broken along with a torn deltoid ligament. I’ll probably need surgery and I’m definitely out for the rest of the season, but it was a good one. I’m proud of myself and what I accomplished. I don’t have any regrets,” recounted Thomas. “When [Cierra] left the field, we all resolved to win the rest of the tournament for her. I love that. I love how much we care about one another,” said senior co-captain Taylor Nunley.
An advantage the Brewers have is the strategy that comes with experienced Coach Brown. “On the field we are extremely organized and do not play blindly. This is what helps keep the team together even if we have a less than optimal squad. We have a system that works so as long as we remain controlled, we can play our game cleanly,” explained Jones. Whether the team is large like the women’s team with 30-plus players or smaller like the mens team, smart plays are crucial. “We went into the tournament with confidence and strong game plan for how to attack our opponents in group play. By sticking to our pattern and communicating well with each other, we allow ourselves to stay in highly physical games by depriving opponents of possession, even though we might be the smaller team, we always give ourselves enough possession to compete,” elaborated senior Adam D’Agostino. “Our strength has always been in our style of play and our strength in the fundamentals of rugby. While Vassar is often out-sized and out-manned, we are able to compete because of our highly disciplined pattern of play,” added senior captain John Winton.
The weekend went well for the women as they bested Southern Connecticut State University 39-5 on Saturday behind freshman scrumhalf Marron McConnell. The team’s depth allows for several younger players to get time at the quarterback-esque position behind junior starter Jyen Wong. It didn’t seem to matter who the Brewers threw into their starting lineup as the women defeated Amherst College handily by a score of 51-0 to advance to the championship round on Sunday.
Seeded first going into the day, the women defeated Springfield College by a decisive score of 29-0, yet lost the impactful Thomas in the process. While this was a devastating blow to the team, they managed quite well in the semi-final game. The women defeated SUNY-Buffalo 25-0 behind four tries from senior captain Darienne Jones.
The final was set to be a heated contest as several female players from other schools expressed their discontent to members of the Vassar men’s team in passing. Vassar did not disappoint, holding a consistent two-try lead throughout most of the game. The signature moment–a brilliant evaded tackle by Jones as she spun free of University of Albany’s largest forward and broke towards the in-goal to put Vassar ahead three tries late in the second half–was emblematic of the Brewers’ weekend. Despite several tough knocks, the team came out on top 26-15 and received hats and a giant ball along with their championship trophy.
While the men’s team struggled on the scoreboard, their performance can be assessed by the commitment they bring to the team and the effort they put in each match. The team has dwindled in number over the past seasons, yet the core group of athletes holds a mix of experienced seniors, strong sophomores and exciting young freshmen.
The men faired quite well in their first game as they defeated Holy Cross 24-5 behind three tries from quick-tap specialist senior John Loree. The team fell big to a physical Salve Regina side in their next game and lost a tough, vindictive match to Molloy in the consolation bracket the next day. “I think our depleted numbers got the best of us but we still played some outstanding phases of Rugby and were really physical in our defense, particularly in our last game. Our freshmen displayed some real grit this weekend. We just wanted to make some noise.”
Freshman speedster Stephen Kpunde had a particularly gutsy weekend. In addition to some lightening-quick runs, he took some rough hits from other schools. At one point, Kpunde was tackled out-of-bounds by Molloy’s wing, slammed into a garbage can and flipped over the medical kit. The winger shook it off, hopped up and made a huge tackle several phases later. Despite their losses, several young players stepped up and proved their worth, giving the team reasons to be optimistic about next fall.
The men’s and women’s rugby teams consider themselves one big family. It is the quality that sets Vassar apart from some other schools and also creates passion and memory for rugby within the players. “The people are hands-down my favorite part of the team. We work hard and we depend on each other so much. I couldn’t do this sport if we weren’t such a family,” said McConnell. Nunley shared, “Considering the way some of the teams would interact with one another, I’d say that one of our greatest strengths is how well we get along, both within the women’s team and in conjunction with our men’s team. Naturally, we get frustrated at times; it’s the nature of competition. But at the end of the day, our goal is to build each other up, not break each other down. Such cohesion only benefits us on the field. It’s an honor to play alongside such a positive, encouraging group of people.” Thomas agreed with Nunley, adding, “The amount of love and camaraderie is unforgettable. You can feel it on and off the field and it’s genuine. That’s definitely one of the most memorable aspect of playing on the team.”
Similar sentiments echo through the men’s team. “My favorite part of rugby is easily the friends I’ve made on this team. These lifelong, ride-or-die friendships are a super big part of my time at Vassar. I can say with confidence that, if I have kids, some of my teammates will be my babies’ uncles. I think that’s pretty special,” said sophomore Joseph Simon.
Going forward, this year’s teams only have a few more opportunities to compete with one another. While the men’s team has one final traditional 15s matchup on April 30, the women’s team is down to a few alternative forms of the game. “The only games we have left this season are 7s tournaments, so our goal as a team, I would say, is to win tri-state 7s and do really well at the West Point 7s tournament. We haven’t worked much on 7s skills but our team dynamic and ability in 15s has gotten even better this semester … I can’t wait to see what happens in the next few weeks as well as next fall!” said junior Mary-Margaret McElduff.
Without a doubt, the Vassar rugby team makes an impression on both its competitors and the overall Vassar community. Nunley reminisced, “My favorite rugby experience would have to be the end of one of my first practices on the team. We all sat in a huge circle on the Farm, introduced ourselves and set goals for the season. I was sitting there, every kind of unsure about my decision to join, looking around at all of those strong Vassar women and I could feel my fear melting away. Sure, I still had to get over the fear of actually playing the sport, but I knew instantly that that was a tteam I wanted to be a part of.”