Thirty-seven women are proud of their bruises.
They take satisfaction in the kind of soreness that wakes a person in the morning, plagues their knees in the afternoon, and keeps them from sleeping at night. They feel that black eyes can make glasses look cooler. They got in trouble for being “too aggressive” in other sports. They fight as a family and “bleed for their sisters.”
The club women’s rugby team at Marist College has performed well in recent years. In 2017, they reached the Elite Eight round of Nationals. Saturday, Nov. 16 they hosted the University of Hartford in the first round at North Field. They lost a well-fought match 19-21. Caisi Hecht, Deirdre Spencer, and Erin McElwain scored a try each.
This level of success in 2019 — ranked fourth in the nation earlier in the season — was a pleasant surprise for a young team with many new players and a lot of unrefined raw talent. “The captains have done a phenomenal job,” head coach Maren Milliard said. “Whether it’s 6 a.m. practice or minute 78 of a game, no one is working harder than them.”
Milliard has led the women’s rugby team for 15 years. She played on the team as a student, like her assistant coaches Danielle Hundt and Kara Chamberlain. After earning a Masters in psychology from Marist, she responded to an advertisement some players had posted in the paper for a new head coach.
Rugby is not always the first choice of athletes entering college; captains and coaches must be fervent in their outreach. When players get their first taste of a proper tackle they learn pretty quickly if they will love it. The team grows through peer scouting and constant recruitment.
“I got stopped in between classes by a rugby player. She said ‘You look like you enjoy hitting people,’” captain Mary “Bean” McGrail said. She shares the title with fellow senior Hecht and Ari Blanchard. There was another Mary on the team when McGrail joined so she introduced herself as Molly. Compared to the actually Molly that was also already rostered she looked like a “string bean,” hence the nickname.
Though an intensely-team-based sport, rugby requires hundreds of individual decisions that need to be communicated clearly and effectively, so one-syllable names and nicknames help a lot.
Marist, in particular, plays a very open style of rugby that deviates frequently from predesigned plays. Forwards will come out of their usual positions and fullback’s runs.
Hecht, number 15 of 15, is one such fullback, and the last line of defense on the pitch. A goalie in soccer feels more comfortable during a game if their defenders are strong, an analogy of Hecht’s for her confidence in the supporting players.
“Our scrum-half, Jordan Vozeh, must be at every single play. She makes great tackles so I don’t have to,” Hecht chuckled.
Unlike most of the other players on the team, Hecht has extensive rugby experience. “She is clearly there because she loves the sport,” co-captain McGrail said. Hecht played all four years of high school rugby.
Despite charismatic leaders fostering a tight-knit community, it can sometimes be difficult to recruit players due to misconceptions about the danger of the sport. “Even though it is a contact sport with just a mouthpiece – and full tackle – it is statistically much safer than football. Most of us still have our teeth,” Milliard joked.
This is not to downplay the rugged physicality of the sport. Girls are thrown to the ground with full force. Bruises are a permanent attribute. Concussions are more scarce than is common in other contact sports, but small knee injuries are frequent. “Bean” has noted how the sport has given her an old man’s body to match her old man’s soul.
Coach Chamberlain sees the sport as not brutal but empowering. “This is an opportunity for young women to be physical, strong, and resilient,” Chamberlain said. According to the captains, Marist’s rugby coaches are some of the only female coaches in the conference.
Hecht mentioned how impactful it was to succeed in the sport despite her small size, and co-captain Blanchard pointed out that the Marist team is smaller than most of the competition.
“We are the smallest physically in our conference, we can’t rely on size. We learn how to hit any body type, and this has been an all-time best hitting season,” Blanchard said, “and if you’re the first one there you’re the first one to hit.”
The team prepared very specifically for Vassar, who had a size advantage. The match was for seeding in the tournament. Not as much was known about Hartford, outside of their inside center scoring a majority of the team’s tries – 20/38 – this season.
Focus in the weeks prior was simply to hone fundamentals and play even more cohesively. Early morning practices tested the girls with temperatures in the teens and grass so frosted their cleats couldn’t penetrate the ground. They still manage to practice more than four times a week battling varsity-level athletes for turf time.
Hecht wishes the sport was sometimes more respected by the other collegiate athletes, a sentiment shared by her teammates and coaches. Coach Hundt also pointed out how stereotypes regarding rugby players hold the rising sport back in the U.S.
“Plenty of teams have big partiers – This idea that rugby players are lazy fat drunks, well you have to be in incredible shape to play the sport,” Hundt said, “But if you want to be competitive and you want to be great you have to be disciplined, and our players are.”
The women’s team will compete in full-roster tournaments as well as seven-player matches in the Spring of 2020 after a fruitful 2019 season.
Raphael Beretta is a senior at Marist College. He currently serves as the Creative Director for the Marist Circle.
Edited by Will Bjarnar
*A previous version of this article stated that Marist’s try-scorers were Caisi Hecht (2) and Erin McElwain (1). This has been corrected to Caisi Hecht (1), Deirdre Spencer (1), and Erin McElwain (1).