Despite loss, women’s rugby still rules
Question: What’s the most successful sports team at Temple University?
Answer: Despite suffering its first loss since 2003–04 in last week’s USA Rugby Division II National Championship game against Providence at Stanford University, it’s Temple women’s rugby.
Although not an official varsity team, the women’s rugby club is a national power. After winning the D-II championship last spring, the Owls went unbeaten and unscored-upon in the fall before cruising through regional tournaments, the national quarterfinals and the national semifinals this spring. (College rugby is played year-round).
Not bad for a group of athletes who played their home games in Fairmount Park, drove themselves to road games, paid for their own coast-to-coast tickets to the national playoffs, got coached by unpaid volunteers and did their own fundraising and recruiting.
“They are a very good team,” said USA Rugby operations manager Dan Lyles, the most celebrated American player in the sport’s history, “especially when you consider that there are about 350 women’s college rugby [club] teams in America, and that D-II teams often beat D-I teams.”
And they’re only going to get better. Next year, Temple retains most of its best players — including junior captain Vanesha McGee, Most Valuable Player at last season’s national championship — and loses only two seniors, Amanda Leonetti and Joanna Reihing.
After recovering from Saturday’s 15-10 loss, the team will meet to make a watershed decision about the club’s future: Should the team stay in D-II, where they’ve established regional dominance, or should they elect to go to D-I, a move that will bring tougher games, more practices and more recruiting?
No matter what its members decide, the team’s success is redemptive for those who remember the dark years after the club was first founded in 1995 by Patricia Flynn and Pia Roth.
“We had only eight people on the club, and you need 15 to take the field,” said Angie Marfisi, who joined the club in 1998. “We spent Friday nights trying to get enough players by calling our friends who showed up for a few practices or had never played before. It was a mess, but we refused to let the club fail.”
Marfisi, now a graduate student and volunteer assistant coach, also credits the dedication of Temple’s Recreation Services staff for helping to save the club. By 2000, 40 students showed up after members put up flyers all over campus. In 2003, the club had a volunteer coach, Pete Steinberg. Now the team has a head coach, Lisa Rosen, and two assistants.
The club’s rebirth hasn’t made the sport’s unique challenges disappear. Although a few members played rugby in high school, most — even stars like McGee — were neophytes looking for new challenges.
The rugby players still drive themselves to road games (imagine driving three hours with teammates and all your equipment packed into your car, playing a brutally physical and exhausting game or two, then driving back home for three hours). Home games at Edgley Field in Fairmount Park, where the overused rugby pitch needs more grass and less glass, aren’t exactly cushy, either.
So why put up with all that on top of classes, homework and a job?
“I do it for the love of the sport,” said Patrice Kemp, a senior who graduates next January.
“Rugby grows on you so quickly. Even though it’s abusive and physical, the mental part of the game is addictive. But I also do it for the love of my team. Even after a three-hour drive, I can’t wait to get on the field with them.”
- By Hillel J. Hoffmann