Ten young women limp onto the field. Coach Conor Bollinger-Smith stands in front of them. Normally, he’d be disappointed with the turnout, but given the weekend they just had, he’s not surprised.
“How you guys doing?” he asks the group of rugby players at their first practice after two national championship games.
“Oh, you know,” says one player, a small smirk on her face, the rest of the team laughing. “I’m perfect from about here,” she points to a spot about three inches above her foot, “down.”
The Washington State University women’s rugby team plays hard.
And the team will continue playing hard when they travel to Stanford, Calif., to play in the Final Four of the national USA Rugby championship. The ruggers beat Utah Valley University 61-10 in the Sweet Sixteen and Cal State Northridge 61-10 in the Elite Eight. They will take on Buffalo State on Friday.
“Year in and year out they’re a powerhouse in (their division),” Bollinger-Smith said as the players do laps around the field, shouting and laughing at each other’s injuries. WSU competes in Division II and plays other schools in the region. Next year, they’ll move up to Division I and play against stronger teams.
The undefeated women’s rugby team has the best record of any WSU team, club sport or otherwise, and has gone to nationals in each of the past five years. The Cougars were national champions in 2010.
Team captain Megan Bonny, who has been with the team for five years, says going to nationals has become a tradition. Rugby has provided a family-like atmosphere while being a competitive sport, Bonny said, and nationals is a part of that.
“It’s not just a distant goal. It’s something that we expect for ourselves,” Bonny said. “We hold ourselves to a different standard because we know we’re capable of reaching that success.”
Some, like sophomore Anne Peterson, have found their closest friends on the WSU rugby team. Peterson played rugby in her hometown of Arusha, Tanzania.
In the last five years, the team has excelled, Bonny said, growing every year and gaining more support from the community.
But the journey to nationals isn’t paved by WSU Athletics funds. It’s supported almost entirely by car washes and concession stands. The team’s overall budget is about $25,000, about $9,000 of which is university provided.
Rugby is a club sport, so it receives little funding from the university. On top of six hours a week of practice, individual time in the gym and a full class load, the players must spend hours fundraising to pay for travel and expenses to attend nationals.
“It’s part of what you sign up for,” said senior Trelby Perez. “It’s what you commit to.”
And next year’s move to D-I means they’ll travel farther and need more money to play teams that do receive more support from their schools.
“It’s frustrating,” Bonny said. “We’re students too. We have classes, rugby and we have other jobs and then we have all this fundraising that we have to do.”
“But then again,” she added, “It’s like we could be sitting at home having a bowl of chips and watching TV, and we’re getting our full college experience.”