Young Blood and Inexperience Do Not Discourage Women’s Rugby

In the 16 years that Coach Maren Millard has put into Marist’s rugby program, she has only coached three women who played the sport prior to coming to Marist. Yes, three. If there is anyone that knows what true inexperience is like from year to year, it’s Millard. Inexperience is nothing new for them, even as it sweeps through the rest of the school’s athletic squads like wildfire. 

The women’s club rugby team was founded in 1996, and has been thriving off of that inexperience for 23 years. Rugby is simply not a sport that American children grow up with — they’re brought up in youth soccer systems, or AAU, or Little League. Chalk the greenness up to the game’s brutality, or maybe just a lack of exposure in America. 

“We have some really great athletes that have played soccer, basketball, field hockey, lacrosse, or whatever else, but they don’t know what a rugby ball is,” Millard said. “It’s the fastest growing sport right now in the country at the collegiate level, but American kids don’t grow up playing rugby.” This aspect of our culture has certainly negatively influenced the sport of rugby in the United States. Yet, this is not the case for the women of Marist. 

This year, the roster is made up of 37 women, of which the majority have never played rugby before college, except for two players. Time and time again, this is a typical season for these women. Recruitment for this club is highly valued; new generations of players are not looked down upon, but rather celebrated. 

For the rookies, it’s a slow progression, with passing being essential for the first two weeks. They hold some of their own practices where they learn how to carry the ball, but none of which involve tackling until after playing for about a month. Sophomore prop, Olivia Haemmerle, knows this first hand, only having been a rookie last year. “I think that is really interesting because I have never had coaches who will take the time to show people exactly what to do,” Haemmerle adds. “Also this year, there was no pressure to do well since we have such a young team, which was nice. It’s a building year.”

The team understands that rugby is not an individual sport by any means. It requires a cohesive, tough set of women and this group is no different. “It’s a sport that you are close, physically, to other people, Haemmerle said. “So, you have to be comfortable with everyone. They are hitting you and you’re hitting them.”

Not only do they work together on the field, but off it in equal measure. At the beginning of the season, during Labor Day weekend, the women run a 5k together and have lunch afterward that features a variety of awards. Before classroom sessions, the women have breakfast together and also host pasta parties before game days. “What’s unique about our bond is that, for some reason, this year I feel so close with all of the girls. Whereas last year, there was definitely a barrier between my rookie class and the seniors,” Haemmerle explains. “This year, everyone is more integrated, especially because the rookies are really good and they’re playing a lot. There is more of a mutual respect.”

While the chemistry between the players is of the utmost importance, the families that stand behind them in support are just as much a part of this team — family is actually a more appropriate definition. After each game, the parents host a cookout with a variety of food and drinks for the players and their families. If this isn’t a Red Fox family, what is? 

The upperclassmen have taken the newbies under their wings to show them how Marist women’s rugby operates. The women proudly revolve around commitment and dedication, as well as resilience. The weather is an obstacle, especially in upstate New York. Not only do the women have on thin amounts of clothing while playing, but most of their skin is exposed to the intense cold, making themselves more easily vulnerable to cuts and bruises.  

Additionally, the women have been incorporating early morning practices starting at 6 a.m. into their schedules, as well as night practices ending around 10 p.m. The purpose of this is to enable the women’s bodies to adapt to the weather and grow a tolerance for it. Has it worked? Their record this season said it all. 

This past fall season, the women had a record of 6-3; two of those losses came against the top team in the nation, Vassar College, which happens to be about ten minutes away from Marist. However, these losses were not something to overlook. Marist held their own against Vassar, narrowly losing 24-7, which is only a two tries difference. This was not frowned upon but rather regarded as a valiant effort in which the team nearly defeated the best team in the country. The women have also demonstrated their dominance in several other games. Notably, they beat Siena College 54-8, University of Albany 64-14, and Hofstra 72-0. On October 4, Marist was ranked tenth in the nation, and reached as high as fourth this season. Quite a jump for a young team. 

Inexperienced never phased these women. Period.

“When we get a core group of juniors and seniors that have been together and played together, by the time they get to that year four, that’s when we typically make a run,” Millard mentioned. 

This season, it was a run to Nationals.

Marist certainly proved they belonged all season. In past years, they’ve reached the round of 32 a total of six or seven times, and to the elite eight a couple of times, according to Millard. This history of success gave the women a great boost of confidence and pride to carry this forward and build momentum. “As a group, they came together, focused on one common goal. Everyone was all in,” Millard said. 

This past Saturday, they competed in the first round of Nationals, facing off against the Hartford Hawks. The game started out with Hartford dominating in possession and taking an early lead, scoring two tries within the first few minutes of the first half. At the half, Hartford had scored three tries, while the Red Foxes only scored one. The women of Marist are all diverse in size and athletic ability, while Hartford was clearly showing themselves as a dominant wall that could not be knocked down. However, in the second half, Marist was feeding off of the crowd’s energy and scored two more tries, with Hartford only scoring one. “You can’t get that ball! This is all Marist right here,” screamed a fan. Unfortunately, despite the incredible amount of effort from the Red Foxes, they fell to Hartford 19-21. 

While history did not repeat itself in the way the team dreamed, it was not taken with heavy hearts. The coaches saw a significant improvement in the team that the women have become this year. “Our bench is very deep and I think, right now, if we put a sub in that sub is as good as the person that came out,” added Coach Danielle Hundt, who has been coaching for 12 years. “I think that has been a big difference for us this year.” The women complement each other well and the chemistry is clearly there. Unfortunately, the cards didn’t fall their way. 

Moving forward into the spring season of seven-on-seven ball, the team is looking to build off of their success so far. It’s a whole new style of play. “It’s not as physical and it’s more skill-based,” Haemmerle adds.  During the spring season, the women travel to different tournaments on the east coast, such as Beast of the East, which involves fifteen-on-fifteen play. “It’s a fun, off-season, team experience versus having a game every week consistently,” Haemmerle said with a smile.

Finishing is the primary focus during the offseason. “Execution on game day. We made little mistakes in big moments,” Millard said. Hundt cited the youth as a reason for this but knows what happens once the experience sets in. “Some of these girls have only been playing rugby for two months and you still have to think about everything because it’s not natural… When you become a senior, it’s sorta second nature. I think it’s just touches in practice and consistency.”

The dedication, practice, and patience extend into the summers when the team refines their individual skills and looks to ensure perfection, if you will, ahead of the next season. “It was amazing how much the people in my grade [got] so much better this year,” Haemmerle said. “I know they are practicing. Bella [Sokolik], one of our starting players, played on a team over the summer. That dedication just makes everyone else so much better and adds to our team… more than everyone thinks.”

When dealing with inexperience, patience is a virtue. Developing the second nature instinct comes with time, however, time is something that Marist women’s rugby has embraced. With time comes experience, and with experience comes success. As Haemmerle said, “It’s a building year.”

Coming into her freshman year, Haemmerle wanted to play club soccer. However, the nonexistence of this club at Marist came as a blessing rather than a disappointment. She was approached about rugby and thought “Why not?” regardless of the fact that she hadn’t ever seen a rugby ball. Inexperience is the building block of this team, and this will continue to be the de facto foundation for Marist women’s rugby in seasons to come. Hopefully future generations of this team will consist of women who value this same mindset. 

Edited by Will Bjarnar

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