Additional reporting by Jackie Molloy and Alex Eisert
Returning to contact sports after a year and a half of social distancing has been challenging for most athletes, but especially for Vassar Women’s Rugby. The squad was one of the only teams to fully sit out competition last year, choosing to opt out rather than risk the health of their team and community. So when the team decided a return to play would finally be safe this fall, they rightfully felt a wave of elation. “Now that we’re all vaccinated and aren’t a risk to everyone around us, we’re really excited to be competing again,” explained Emily Howell ’22 via text. Despite almost two years without competition, the Women’s Rugby team has picked up right where they left off and started this new season strong, proving that despite unprecedented obstacles, they still have a winning spirit.
Still, the transition from almost no contact to full-on tackling was not an easy one. “It’s definitely been difficult going from a semester in which you couldn’t even stand six feet from another person to playing rugby which is a really physical game,” said Kasey Drake ’23. She continued, “We’re just trying to work on that balance and still [respect] each other’s comfortability.” Howell further elaborated, “We were barely doing contact last year and only in smaller groups, so it’s a bit disorienting to be playing full contact games again.” Head Coach Tony Brown added, “COVID isn’t over. From the Vassar [perspective], the majority of students are vaccinated, but rugby is a contact sport, so everyone’s sort of worried about being in close quarters.”
Nevertheless, the rugby team has done very well in their first few weeks back. The squad kicked off the season with a dominant 68-0 shutout against University of Albany, followed by a second win versus Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 58-15. They retained their winning streak this past Sunday with a more than convincing 39-14 versus Fairfield University at their home opener.
With how easily they have achieved wins since returning, it’s not surprising the team is enthusiastic to be back on the field. However, winning is not the only aspect that the team is enjoying; the community and social dynamic were also sorely missed. When asked what initially made rugby appealing to her, Drake commented on the strength and welcoming nature of the team: “I was actually on the varsity volleyball team here and when the season ended, I just wanted to keep playing a sport, and I started coming to rugby and the community was amazing. I think that’s the biggest attraction to rugby for most people is the community. But it was really fun, so I just stuck with it.” Even with the pandemic separating the team physically for over a year, their team bonds prevailed. “It felt like I haven’t left the team at all,” said flyhalf Marie Claire Cicenia ’23. “Everybody just kind of welcomed me back in with open arms and I think that’s what’s great about the rugby team.”
Despite their positive attitude, the team still is actively dealing with the aftermath of two years without competition. Besides dealing with health precautions of being a high contact sport, one of the other biggest trials facing the team is the lack of senior leadership and experience. “It’s definitely been a challenge having had so many of our experienced players graduate,” Louise Ambler ’23 said. “But I think we’re rising to the challenge, and other teams are in the same situation… today was a good day for everybody, especially [for] all of the rookies to get a lot of practice.” The loss of graduating upperclassmen is a situation not specific to just Vassar teams, but has hit rugby harder than most. Because most rugby teams are club sports, there is often a lack of exposure and experience when people join the sport, so new players barely know how to play when they first start and must rely on the more experienced players to help learn. With the pandemic, the current upperclassmen have a fraction of the experience a normal upperclassmen would have, which is a loss of a crucial element needed for success. “Even if you have players who come in to join the team, your seniors have only played three semesters of rugby,” said Coach Brown. “Normally they would have played two semesters each year… so your freshmen have never played, your sophomores didn’t play last year, your juniors only played one semester.”
Despite the obstacles of the pandemic, the women’s rugby team still has high aspirations for this season. Women’s rugby has easily been one of the most successful and competitive programs at Vassar the past few years. They have seriously competed at the national playoffs the past ten years, and finally won a national title in 2018. Even with the setbacks the team has faced the past year, the same expectations of excellence remain. “The main goal is to win nationals,” said Cicenia. “Our team has won nationals before… we do have a lot of rookies this year, but we’re hoping to still play on the national stage.” Ambler additionally elaborated, “[We just want to] be as competitive as we can be and put in the hard work.”
Although the road to nationals has just begun, the women’s rugby team showed us their dedication to representing Vassar with pride and hard work throughout. After all, team dynamic and work ethic is half the battle. Ambler, Cicenia and Drake all affirmed that this devotion is derived from the passion of Coach Brown. For Coach Brown, his outlook for the team is not only based around wins, but representing Vassar to the best of their ability: “Our expectations are to go out every week and represent Vassar with great pride. That’s a big part of [rugby], you have to have a reason to play.” After two years off the field, women’s rugby has more than a reason to play.