Fairfield’s women’s rugby team has quietly become one of the best in the country

Fairfield’s women’s rugby team has quietly become one of the best in the country

by John Torseillo

Head Coach Ryan Birge ’05’s first brush with the Fairfield University women’s rugby team was less than inspiring.

“My first experience with the women’s team was as a freshman member of the Fairfield men’s rugby team in the fall of 2001,” he recalled. “It caused great displeasure to the men’s team knowing they had to share Grauert Field space for weekly practices. It caused even more tension when we would look across the field and see that women’s rugby practices consisted of six to eight women playing ‘Duck, Duck, Goose’ (typically a children’s game like tag) and ‘Red Rover, Red Rover.’ There was no coach and no organization.”

After Birge graduated from Fairfield in 2005, a few of the members from the women’s team approached him about coaching the group. They realized they could be more competitive if they were more organized and knew more about the sport.

“Since I was local, living in Milford, Conn., and working in Westport, I agreed to help. I also saw it as a fantastic opportunity to remain active with Fairfield rugby.”

Birge’s involvement and a renewed commitment by the team’s players, has indeed made a difference. The club has grown from those six to eight players some 10 years ago to a current level of about 35 players. The team has gone from being largely winless to producing three consecutive unbeaten regular seasons and back-to-back MetNY Division III championships.

In 2011, the team made it all the way to the National Small School College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) National Final Four in Cherry Hill, N.J., where it lost to eventual national champion Bentley University. This past year, the team again qualified for the Division III National Championship tournament after beating Molloy College in the MetNY Championship. The Stags lost a close battle with a very tough Lock Haven University (Penn.) in the quarterfinals. Fairfield finished this last season ranked as the number six team in the country. No more “Duck, Duck, Goose.”

Said Birge, “The success is a testament to a fantastic group of players who enjoy the game and are passionate for the sport.”

Rebecca Ponessa ’15 says choosing to join the Fairfield Women’s Rugby Club has been one of the best decisions she has made at Fairfield.

“We are a reflection of a family. We have former cheerleaders, equestrians, and girls who have never played a sport in their lives. We accept any person who chooses to give rugby a shot. Yes, it is a new and growing sport for women in college, but we will support anyone who gives it a little time and effort.”

“I know that all of us lay everything out every time we walk on the pitch, and when we come off we have nothing left,” she added. “Our team has done well over the years because we are constantly building. I think we will have nothing short of an amazing team for another year.”

While varsity sports tend to get most of the headlines, there is a thriving and vital culture of sports clubs at Fairfield. They combine genuine competitive spirit with all the virtues of the amateur endeavor. This past year, over 500 students participated in one of 18 sports clubs at Fairfield, reports John Paladino, associate director of sports clubs at the University.

Currently active clubs include baseball, equestrian, field hockey, martial arts, men’s and women’s ice hockey, men’s and women’s lacrosse, men’s rugby, women’s rugby, running, sailing, alpine ski racing and competitive snowboarding, women’s and men’s soccer, coed tennis, and women’s and men’s volleyball.

“Many of our students find their niche here through this participation,” said Paladino. “The clubs provide them with an opportunity to continue playing a sport they have enjoyed for a good part of their lives. Some of our clubs also attract novices, interested in learning something new.”

Elected officers provide leadership for the clubs, working primarily with Paladino to assure administrative goals are met.

“Solid leadership on the students’ part is absolutely necessary to make sure their clubs remain a viable part of the University long after they have graduated. For example, men’s rugby will be marking its 50th year as a sports club at Fairfield during the fall ’13 semester,” Paladino said.

Birge played rugby in  high school at Fairfield Prep, during which he toured Ireland. At Fairfield, he was selected co-captain his sophomore and junior years and team president his senior year. He also was the Doug E. Ciacci Award winner — given to the team’s most valuable player. After college, he played one season with the prestigious New Haven All-Blacks men’s rugby club and still plays in tournaments.

Rugby is growing in popularity, not only at Fairfield but also across the nation, and Birge thinks that Fairfield has some particular advantages where the sport is concerned.

“Fairfield is unique since it is a Division I University without a varsity football or ice hockey team as well as without fraternities or sororities,” observed Birge. “I feel that this presents a definite advantage to rugby by giving the men’s and women’s programs a larger pool of students to recruit from. It can be played by the most skilled athletes or by a person who has never competed in a team sport before. On top of all this, team camaraderie and the social aspect of rugby is always attractive to new players.”

Birge said barriers are crumbling that prevented women from enjoying the sport.

“I feel that the stereotypes usually associated with women’s rugby and women rugby players are being completely broken down. Some of my players have even been cheerleaders and dance team members. Yes, it is a tough sport, but when played correctly it is a fun game to participate in.”

The Fairfield women play in the Empire/MetNY Rugby Football Union Division III, and regular season games consist of matches against Fordham University, Sacred Heart University, Molloy College, Drew University, and Bard College. The team also competes in a number of tournaments in Vermont, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

The team faces new challenges this year, as 12 of the team’s starting 15 players graduated last spring. Also, it is likely that this season the team will be without junior and MetNY league-leading scorer, Maggie DeMoura, who is recovering from a knee injury suffered during the Stags’ national quarterfinal match against Lock Haven University last November.

“However, we have an amazing cast of younger players to jump right in and fill some big shoes,” said Birge. “I’m hoping for big things from our team captains — Amanda Carchietta ’14 and Elizabeth ‘Sandal’ Cortez ’13. Amanda is one of our ‘flankers’ and is someone who can be counted on for big tackles and strong running. Sandal is our ‘flyhalf’ and will be our play-maker on the field.”

The team will also rely on junior ‘scrumhalf’ Becca Ponessa ’14.

“Becca has improved tremendously over two seasons and was selected to the MetNY U-23 All-Star team as a 19-year-old,” Birge said.

Other players who will be crucial to the team’s success will be Bridget Wakelin ’15, Kaitlin McEwan ’15, Danielle Hill ’15, Morgan Carey ’14, and Kilee Bayne ’14.

Birge would love to see both the men and women’s rugby clubs attain varsity status.

“With the popularity of the game growing (women’s rugby is already considered an ‘NCAA Emerging Sport’), the success and history of the teams at Fairfield, and the fact that it is a very affordable sport, I can see a proposal presented very soon. I think it will be tough to ignore.”

Nobody is ignoring the Fairfield University women’s rugby team, that’s for sure.