Ruggers Head to Nationals
For seniors on the Vassar women’s rugby team, being recognized as one of the elite squads in the country is nothing new. The Brewers earned a berth in the American Collegiate Rugby Association Final Four in 2013, and the team qualified for the tournament again last year.
But co-captain Nathalie Freeman ’17 says that when she and her teammates take the field Saturday in this year’s Final Four, they’ll be focusing on a goal Vassar has never achieved: winning the national championship.
“To play for the national championship on the second day of the tournament, you have to win the first game, and we’ve never done that,” Freeman says. “With all the experience we have in national competition, I think we can do it.”
Vassar earned a berth in the 2016 ACRA Final Four in Greenville, SC, by defeating Albany State, 34-5, on Nov. 20 at Vassar Farm. The Brewers will face defending champion Davenport (MI) University in the semifinals. Winona (MN) State University faces the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in the other semifinal. The winners face off for the national title Sunday.
Freeman and fellow co-captains Mariah Ghant ’17 and Mary Margaret McElduff ’17 say they realize they’ll be facing much tougher competition this weekend than they did during the regular season. In 12 matches, Vassar outscored its opponents by a combined score of 709-94. “(Assistant Coach) Mark Griffiths is constantly reminding us that these games will be harder than any we’ve played so far,” says McElduff, a chemistry major from Wappingers Falls, NY, “so we’re working hard to perfect all of our techniques.”
Freeman, a science, technology and society major from Lincoln, NE, adds that superior coaching is a prime reason why the team has achieved at such a consistently high level. “My friends sometimes ask me, ‘How come you guys are so much better than the teams you play?’ and I say it’s because our coaches have more knowledge about the game than almost anybody else in the country,” she says.
Like Freeman and McElduff, Ghant had never played rugby before she came to Vassar. But she says she was intrigued with the idea of trying a new sport when she learned about the rugby team during first-year orientation. “Honestly, when I tried out for the team, I had no intention of staying for very long,” says Ghant, a drama and English double major from Schaumberg, IL. “But because so many of us in the freshman class joined at the same time, there was something rewarding about learning together and gaining confidence in each other.”
All three players say it didn’t take them long to appreciate the special bond Vassar rugby players have with each other, thanks to the long tenure of head coach Tony Brown, who has run Vassar’s rugby program for 21 years. “We’re all proud that we’re part of the Vassar rugby legacy,” Freeman says. “Tony told us about a wedding he went to of two former rugby players and half the team was there at the ceremony. We’re all part of a larger community, and you don’t want to let them down, but at the same time, you know they’ll all be there for you if you lose.” Brown says the team is ready for the tournament. “This is very much a group of mature, hardworking individuals,” he says. “There’s a good collective spirit, and all of them have earned their positions in the starting 23. The main goal set by our team leaders was to return to the Final Four, but they want to win the championship rather than just be a Final Four team.”
Ghant says the Vassar rugby experience transcends the team’s exploits on the field. “It’s not just the games; it’s not just the competition,” she says. “It’s the fun you have on the bus rides and in the hotel joking around with some of your best friends.”
McElduff says she’s excited to face the challenge. “There’s pressure to succeed because Vassar has been so good at rugby for so long,” she says, “but it’s not an uncomfortable pressure. We’re looking forward to it.”