Back in 2002, there were only two high school women's rugby teams in all of Western New York.
In the five short years since then, women's rugby has taken off -- especially in and around Buffalo. Those years have seen the creation of teams from Orchard Park, East Aurora, and Kenmore East (and in time for the 2008 season, newcomers Grand Island) and more, almost doubling the number of teams in the league and providing better competition for high school women's rugby in the area.
Joseph Kirsch, vice president for Under 19 Rugby in New York, says there are now seven teams between Buffalo and Rochester, with two new teams slated to start up in the Albany area sometime within the next year.
John McTigue, coach of the City Honors/Genesee high school team, is surprised by not only the number, but the kind of athletes girls rugby attracts.
"I knew girls would love this sport. I've been amazed by how rugby attracts girls who I would have presumed were too quiet and not aggressive enough to play. Yet, when they get on the pitch [and] make -- and take -- their first tackles and play as a team, it's obvious how empowering this sport is for young girls," he said.
Mollie McCarthy, coach of the Orchard Park Rugby Team, noted that the rise in the number of women's high school rugby teams in the area has meant that local tournaments have opened up to women's rugby, creating U-19 categories for girls to compete in. One is the Dead Ants Rugby Tournament, which is held at Genesee Community College the first weekend in May.
Aside from providing better competition for high school teams, the rising numbers have given a needed jolt to area colleges, such as the University at Buffalo.
Kristen Huber, the UB women's rugby coach and vice president of Women's Rugby in New York State, said the upsurge of new high school teams will force some colleges to start teams as well as expand programs already available at other colleges. "I just think people are having a really positive experience. And I think overall we're getting better athletes than we were four or five years ago," said Huber of the growth of UB's women's rugby program.
Caitlin Koch, who played rugby for Orchard Park, is headed to Canisius in the fall and anticipates the young team will be "a lot more challenging."
"You're playing against girls who have been playing for years," Koch said. "As opposed to high school rugby, where a lot of girls are just getting their start. College girls are bigger, faster and they hit a lot harder."
As of 2007, there are only four varsity-level NCAA collegiate women's rugby teams in the country -- Eastern Illinois University at Division I, West Chester University at Division II and Bowdoin College and Southern Vermont College at the Division III level. Every other team competes at a "club" level, which in most cases means less recognition, less funding and less structure and organization than if the teams were part of the NCAA. According to Huber, New York State has about 45 club-level collegiate teams.
The issue of being "club" or "varsity" affects high school women's rugby programs as well. While high school rugby is thriving in this area, not one of the teams out of Buffalo or Rochester is an official varsity team. Every single one operates as "club" level rugby. According to James Dunnigan, the Principals Representative to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, New York has actually approved rugby as a varsity sport. However, if a school were to choose to become "varsity," it would have no teams to play against since a varsity high school team cannot play a club-level high school team in an official match, according to state rules.
"My guess is that rugby will stay at a club level for a long time," Dunnigan said, speaking of both women's and men's high school rugby.
Becky Carlson, the Emerging Sports Program Manager for USA Rugby, acknowledged that varsity status for high school teams is a first step to pushing college level teams into the varsity arena.
"One of the biggest resources for NCAA athletic directors is the national list of high school sports. Rugby is currently not on the list and is not sponsored as a girls' varsity sport at any high school," said Carlson. The exclusion of rugby from the national list of high school sports remains a huge obstacle in the push for more NCAA Women's Rugby teams.
However, it seems that the stars are aligning for women's rugby. As Carlson pushes the US initiative for Women's NCAA rugby forward, the International Rugby Board has joined the fray, publishing a "dedicated strategic plan for the women's game, focusing on high performance, union infrastructure and tournament initiatives" according to an article on the board's Web site.
Overall, the IRB hopes to get more women involved in every level of the game, from the local to the international, and the strategic plan pinpoints ways in which club and school level rugby teams can start new programs and build upon existing teams.
Though not specifically following the IRB's strategic plan, New York State has sought to expand its women's rugby program with the selection of the state's first U-19 Women's team in May. The team played in a tournament in Albany in June.
Sarah Bellnier, who played for the City Honors/Genesee Rugby team in high school, was one of the players named to this U-19 statewide team. "It feels good to have made the team because I feel like I've accomplished something great following my high school [rugby] career," said Bellnier.
Bellnier will be a freshman at Fredonia in the fall and hopes to play for their women's club level rugby team. Though the team currently has no coach, Bellnier anticipates a faster-paced and high level of play on the rugby field. However, she will miss her days playing for City Honors. "They have all really impacted my life," she said.
Maria Forti, a City Honors graduate, plays rugby for McGill University.