Women’s rugby team maintains winning ways

When the dust settled after the spring 2011 season, the women’s club rugby team was without a coaching staff and down 18 players.

The Colonials graduated 14 seniors, and saw four other players depart for personal reasons. Their four-year head coaches, Kenny and Apryl Pope, departed after completing their graduate degrees to rejoin family in Ohio.

But the squad that had advanced to the Elite 8 of the USA Rugby Division II Championship last April wasn’t shaken by the change. Using their considerable success to help recruit, the women’s rugby team found new coaches and began to rebuild the program.

“We decided to heavily recruit in the fall and go for a training regimen that allowed rookies to get a basic grasp of the game,” team president senior Jaime Albarelli said.

The roster overhaul was a massive change for a squad that went undefeated in fall 2010, sweeping its opponents in the Potomac Rugby Union and qualifying for play in Mid-Atlantic Rugby Football Union. There, the Colonials finished second in spring 2011, ultimately advancing to the Elite 8 of the USA Rugby Division II Championship. After the completion of the entire 2010-2011 season, GW earned a sixth-place ranking nationally from Rugbymag.com.

After the turnover, the women’s rugby team was left with 13 members – two shy of fielding a full team. Undaunted, the Colonials found two new coaches, graduate student Winnie Chao and alumna Suzanne Haggerty, additions who offered vital motivation for the club team as it regained strength.

“Suzanne played with us for two years, so she knows our system,” Albarelli said. “Winnie brings a sort of intensity that everybody on the team understands and feels.”

Haggerty, a 2010 graduate of the University, serves as the team’s fitness coach, putting players through challenging endurance drills at the end of practice, once the team finishes running through plays and tackles. With about 20 minutes left in practice, Albarelli said, Haggerty prepares the team for fitness drills that push players to their limits – but that Albarelli said make a huge difference in competition.

“You always know when she goes to set up a drill, she has a smile on her face that says, ‘This is going to be fun.’ ” Albarelli said. “And you know it’s going to be the opposite of fun.”

The team is now preparing for Mid-Atlantic play, and will return to USA Rugby competition in June. Sophomore Beth Strader said, despite significant setbacks in the offseason, the root of the program’s success again this season lies in its unified front on the field.

“We don’t have a ‘best player,’ ” Strader said. “It is a collective effort that makes us win.”

Fellow freshman Shelby Steeves echoed Strader’s sentiments, adding that tight-knit camaraderie and unselfish play are two key aspects of competition that the women’s rugby team emphasizes. Both are key to the Colonials’ performance, Steeves said.

The Colonials will host Delaware March 24 to open Mid-Atlantic play, and should they emerge victorious, they will advance to the semifinals. The key against the Blue Hens is simple, Abarelli said. To win, the team simply needs to continue the unfaltering effort it has displayed since last season, through offseason shake-ups and into an undefeated fall campaign.

“They’re a good team, but if we play well and hard, we should beat them,” Albarelli said.

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