Coming into the 2015 fall season, there was a bit of uncertainty for the UConn women’s rugby team. But as the season went on, that slowly went away.
“At the beginning of this season coach even said to us this is a rebuilding year. We lost a lot of really great seniors”, said fifth-year senior and captain Gabby Benitez.
And at the end of the season, there was no uncertainty on this team.
Last week, the UConn women’s club rugby team won the national championship by defeating Air Force 19-12. The win capped an undefeated season and incredible run for this young team.
But the road to glory wasn’t exactly easy for the Huskies.
UConn met Princeton in the national semifinal and regional game, where they found themselves in a position they’ve never been before. After a dominating first half in which the UConn women’s rugby team led Princeton 7-5 at halftime, they were down 12 points with about 12 minutes left after the Tigers scored two consecutive tries fairly quickly.
“We were down by 12 points at one time, which we’ve never done before. At least I have never played on this team and come back from 12 points,” said senior co-captain Emily Reed.
The Huskies got things going again on the kick off when junior Jess Alves stole the ball and Reed took it the rest of the way for the score.
“I’ve never seen her run so fast before,” said senior co-captain Gabby Benitez.
That made the score 19-12 Princeton after UConn couldn’t convert on a difficult kick. With three minutes left in the game, Princeton started committing penalties close to their own try line as UConn moved down the field. Then senior fly half Nicole Sills ran a quick “tap and go” to score a try right underneath the upright leading to an easy kick and a tie game at 19.
With a minute left, the game continued to stay on Princeton’s side of the field and the Tigers continued to commit penalties, allowing the Huskies to get into striking range. With the clock expiring, the Huskies decided to kick for points, taking a kicking tee and lining it up where the penalty was taken.
“It was not an easy kick. But our kicker, Nicole (Sills) was pretty confident. I don’t even think she watched it go through. She just walked off the field because she knew,” said Reed.
That moment gave them a 22-19 win for the regional championship, and pushed the Huskies forward onto the National Championship to take on Air Force.
“Everybody just realized, we’re going to South Carolina. We’ve been talking about it all year,” Reed said. “I was so emotional. Our coach even cried, it was so cute.”
Coming off their most difficult game all year, the national championship had a different feel to it.
“Within the first 20 minutes, coach and I said to each other we can beat this team,” Benitez, who watched from the sidelines after getting injured in the regular season against Rhode Island.
UConn controlled possession and field position for the first 20 minutes, and even with a 0-0 score, the Huskies knew it was on them to take care of the Falcons.
“We knew pretty quick if we lost this game it would’ve been us. It wouldn’t have been them being a better rugby team. It would’ve been us who got in our own way. So we just played our game and played the best game we could’ve,” said Reed.
UConn went into the half up 7-0 and scored another try early in the second half to go up by 12 before Air Force came back with two tries to knot it up at 12. But Air Force would shoot themselves in the foot, picking several penalties late, which the Huskies were able to capitalize on.
UConn scored again off the efforts of senior Amanda Lazarus to go up 19-12, giving Air Force six minutes to strike again. The Falcons nearly pulled it off, having a moment where when of their athletes broke free with one player to beat, but sophomore fullback Sara Rothery was there to make the stop. The Huskies would hold on from there to become national champions.
It was something the Huskies felt was a long time coming. The last three seasons were pretty successful for the Huskies, including a two-loss campaign last fall in which both losses came to Army, including one in the national tournament.
This season marked their first in a new division as the sport split into three divisions, primarily based on the amount of money and resources allocated to a program. UConn, a club team, found the field cleared somewhat for them. The team also has a spring season, which is less competitive, and every other year in the spring, the team has taken European tours to play exhibition games. The changes and extra work has allowed them to learn the sport and gain experience playing.
The team gains new members almost exclusively from word of mouth and the biannual involvement fair, and very rarely do athletes come in with rugby experience. Benitez estimates in her nearly five seasons with the club, there have been two girls who played rugby in high school. The team has a lot former high school athletes from the soccer field or basketball court. Benitez herself came to UConn hoping to play club soccer.
“In high school I played soccer, ran track and I was a ballerina. I really think the team aspect, the competitive aspect… even the coordination and balance from dancing you can incorporate into rugby some way,” said junior scrum half Mel Clarke.
Despite an unbeaten record and a national championship, with all the uncertainty that the team had coming into the season, there was notable building blocks.
Reed, Benitez and Clarke were all really impressed with the improvements made over the summer from the younger players.
“There were a lot open of spots and they knew that those spots were open so they worked their butts off for them,” according to Reed.
The Huskies ability to improve and adjust is what allowed a “rebuilding year” to be a championship year.
Playing in the Northeastern Conference, the Huskies came away with the conference championship after a 49-3 drubbing of runner-up Boston College, giving UConn a first-round bye for the postseason. To get there, the Huskies took on teams through the Northeast, including Boston University, Northeastern, URI and UMass. Their victory against the Terriers was by five points, their smallest margin of victory until the Princeton game. Both Benitez and Clarke would suffer season ending injuries against the Rams.
The first and second round of the national tournament were held in Pittsburgh at Founder’s Field, home of the Pittsburgh Harlequins Rugby team. UConn opened things up with 61-5 blowout of Kent State. That was followed up by the thrilling win against Princeton.
“When we won that people were just overjoyed, it was the most excited we had been all season,” said Clarke.
A week later, the Huskies knocked off Air Force 19-12 for the national championship in Greenville, South Carolina at Furman University.
The sense of team is really what led to the Huskies success this fall. The travel squad was 22 members, along with the injured Benitez and Clarke. But the team has close to 50 members and an incredible togetherness.
“The support of the girls that don’t get to travel with us is really important. The B-side season ended Oct. 31 but they continued to come to practice, their attendance didn’t fall off,” Reed said. “They painted the rock for us before we left for the airport and after we won.”
Matt Barresi is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.