by Kara Murray, ʼ17
Rugby is one of the fastest growing-sports in the United States. It has made its way into high schools all over the country, including many in Western New York. Much of rugby’s attraction has to do with its authenticity. All societal norms and stereotypes are eliminated when you step on the pitch. The game does not include scientifically engineered AstroTurf like football, or special face cages like hockey. There are no fancy strategies or equipment involved to enhance performance. Rugby is 100 percent genuine human aggression, strength and ability. It is often referred to as "elegant violence." Man versus man — or in this case, woman versus woman.
Its popularity has grown tremendously, especially among women, a trend that has been visible on the Fredonia campus for nearly 20 years.
Established in 1996, Fredonia’s Blackhorse Women’s Rugby Club is comprised of diverse young women from a variety of majors and grade levels. Whether they joined Blackhorse to learn a new sport, make new friends, or just release the daily stresses of college, these “ruggers” have all stayed because of the love and passion they’ve developed for the game, their teammates, and the excuse to get down and dirty.
|The women’s rugby team joined the national campaign, “Because of Rugby…” last year to promote the benefits of the sport.
Perhaps the biggest reason for its increasing popularity among women is that it’s so empowering to them. Their version and that of their male counterparts are exactly the same. Women have very few opportunities to play contact sports that do not limit them through modifications that make the women’s sport different — and often safer than the men’s. The rules of women’s and men’s rugby, however, are identical. In fact, Blackhorse’s women’s and men’s teams occasionally scrimmage each other and frequently help one another by offering tips and support at their matches.
“Having the same rules as the guys puts us on a completely equal playing field. We tackle, score, and scrum the exact same way. We wear the same uniforms, have the same amount of padding, and play on the same sized field for the same amount of time. And the best part about it is that there are even some women that can do it better,” says Blackhorse Women’s President Shannon McHugh, a senior Political Science and Psychology double major. “If that’s not empowering, I don’t know what is.”
Another attractive feature of Fredonia’s team is that it does not hold try-outs. Its players believe that anyone who wants the opportunity to play this insane sport, whether they have experience or not, deserves to have a spot on the team. It brings together friends who otherwise may not have met.
“The benefits of such a diverse team of players are endless,” adds McHugh, a native of South Buffalo. “When there are different ages, skill levels and majors, so many more people are represented on the team. Each player is like a different puzzle piece, and of course as people graduate the puzzle starts to change, but it always remains whole.”
Matching bruises, daily practices, long car rides to away games, and grueling battles every weekend build a bond so strong that the team instantly becomes family.
Fredonia’s Danielle Miano, ’07, is now a member of the USA Women’s Eagles rugby team – and working to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games (photo credit: USA Rugby/KLC Foto)
“Every week we play 80-minute games of getting knocked down and literally picking each other up,” says Team Captain Katerina Koutsandreas, a sophomore English Adolescence Education major from Hamburg. “We fight the battle together, with each other, and for each other. I think that’s what makes us all so close.”
Fredonia’s rugby clubs participate at the Division II level. The regular fall season consists of eight games against other Division II collegiate teams. Blackhorse trains throughout the winter and attends many away tournaments in the spring. This year, because of its budget, Blackhorse could not afford a full-time coach, yet still finished its fall season in third place due to the sheer commitment and passion of its players.
Through rugby, women not only get the chance to learn a new sport and make new friends, but more importantly, they gain valuable traits that come into play when they step off the pitch.
“Being a part of rugby for four years has encouraged me to take on leadership roles, like team president,” McHugh explains. “Seeing how much this team has done for me, for others, and for the good of the school is very important to me. I want to give others the same things I was given when I first joined rugby: friends, a boost of confidence, and ‘a chance.’”
Rugby also encouraged McHugh to take a leadership role in the Student Association. She has since become a senior class representative and a member of the student relations committee.
This spring, the Blackhorse women excitedly took part in a nationwide campaign started by Emory University’s women’s club called “Because of Rugby…” The campaign promotes strength and positivity, while encouraging other women to play the sport.
“The number-one reward of playing rugby is the newfound self-confidence,” says Koutsandreas. “It makes you feel strong, powerful, and even beautiful. I’m proud of the way I look after a game: hair messed up, scratched, bruised…covered in mud. You can literally see how hard I’ve worked. Our bruises are our beauty marks — constant reminders that we put up the best fight that we could.”
Blackhorse women’s rugby not only focuses on benefiting its own players, but also on bettering the Fredonia community. Each year the club takes part in community service opportunities on campus by volunteering at various Spectrum events and Fall Sweep. In February, the club’s original annual fundraiser, Kisses for Pups, raised money for the Chautauqua Humane Society. However, the team’s favorite community service event is “Get in the Game,” during which team members spend a day teaching local young girls how to play rugby.
“Rugby has such a powerful impact on our team that getting to teach young girls how to feel that same exhilaration and power is touching to us,” says Blackhorse Social Chair Marie Scime, a sophomore public relations major from Tonawanda.
This year, Fredonia’s women’s and men’s teams completed 289 combined hours of community service and received the campus’ Outstanding Service Award for exemplary commitment to improving the local community through volunteer work.
“It is never hard to rally a group of our girls together to take part in a community service event. Often times we actually have more volunteers than needed,” says Scime. “Rugby has given us so many gifts, and we want to share them with those who are in need.”
One Fredonia alumna knows exactly what gifts Scime is referring to. Danielle Miano, ’07, is a current member of the USA Women’s Eagles rugby team, which is in the process of qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“Blackhorse is responsible for allowing me to find my dream,” attests Miano. “If I never went to Fredonia and had such an inviting group of girls welcome me to the sport, I wouldn’t be where I am. Blackhorse taught me how to play, how to love a game, how to develop an honest work ethic, and how to be leader with true integrity. Every time I take the field in my USA jersey, I play for Blackhorse and the people in my life that believed in me along the way.”
The benefits of playing women’s rugby are endless. Blackhorse has given decades of Fredonians the opportunity to gain friendships, confidence, and new skills. Most importantly, it teaches them that it is okay to get knocked down — literally — even if it’s by a girl twice their size, and right into a giant mud puddle. What counts is that they get back up and continue, even stronger.