WOOSTER, Ohio – Breaking down stereotypes one scrum at a time, and having lots of fun in the process, is The College of Wooster’s women’s rugby team, a recently revamped student organization that is thriving.
Rugby is considered the fastest growing team sport for women in the United States. According to the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO), its club membership has increased an average of 12% annually since 2007.
Wooster jumped back into the women’s rugby fray in the spring of 2016 (the last known team was in 1985), thanks primarily to the efforts of Vanessa Ortega-Ramirez, a junior neuroscience major from the Chicago area. Ortega-Ramirez fell in love with the sport as a high schooler and wanted to continue to play, so she took advantage of one of Wooster’s maxims – start your own student organization. It took some time, but her persistence is starting to takeoff.
“It was very difficult (to recruit), many more people know now,” she explained. “We organized ‘Rugby 101’ clinics, and in fact, every practice was kind of like a clinic at first. When we first started, we only had two girls who really knew how to play.”
Whether it was destiny or simply good fortune, shortly after Ortega-Ramirez’s arrival on campus, Anne-Marie Lemal Brown, the club rugby coach from Colgate University, a two-time runner-up finisher at the national NSCRO 15s, relocated to the Wooster area. Her addition as coach of the Wooster team has helped boost the club’s interest and improved practice sessions, and now the team has about 25 on its spring roster, made up of mostly experienced, skilled players. In fact, four current members – Madi Adamo, Jenelle Booker, Breanna Harrell, and Katie Sendek, all first-years – were selected for the NSCRO Women’s 7’s All-Star Championship, held in Florida this January, with Harrell being named to the all-tournament team.
“Vanessa did all the leg work. It’s a completely student-run organization. I’m excited just to be a part of it and provide some guidance and coaching,” said Lemal Brown, a former professional ice skater who caught the rugby bug after her college days and was once a champion with the Bay Area SheHawks, which also included members of the 1991 Women’s Rugby World Cup team.
Among the reasons for rugby’s rise in popularity is that it’s the “most empowering sport for women,” agreed Lemal Brown and Ortega-Ramirez. “There’s no feeling like tackling, or being tackled. It feels really good,” noted Ortega-Ramirez. Lemal Brown added “once they have that (tackling) technique down … it binds women together.”
Lemal Brown also mentioned that it combines many of the exciting aspects and skills from other sports into one. “Rugby requires so many skills – passing, running, kicking – and so much fitness. It’s non-stop action.”
Rugby attracts a wide range of participants. “We need people that can run super fast, that can hit, that are super big and strong. There really isn’t any one size that would be a wrong size for rugby,” said Ortega-Ramirez, while Lemal Brown observed that “we have an incredibly diverse team, different backgrounds, different skin color, different shapes. They wouldn’t necessarily run in the same social circles, so it’s really great to see how much they love each other.”
And, maybe the biggest reason rugby is starting to take hold at Wooster, it’s “a thinking game,” according to Lemal Brown. “You have to think on your feet all the time. There are very few set plays. You try to drive the ball as a group and all decisions have to be made instantly on the fly. That appeals to those students who like that idea of constantly thinking … and we have a lot of those students here.”
The club rugby season takes place throughout the academic year, with the traditional 15’s (15 players a side) during the fall semester and the 7’s in the spring. Under the NSCRO umbrella, Wooster plays in the Ohio Valley Women’s Collegiate Rugby Conference.