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Cougars eye national rugby championship

WSU heads to semifinals with confidence

What’s worth six hours a week of practice, a couple of self-funded trips to Stanford, Calif., and one to Florida or the assorted bloody noses, bruises and omnipresent bandages?

A national title, of course.

The Washington State women’s club rugby team has endured that and more the past couple of months, all in pursuit of the ultimate goal.

And now, like Emerald City, the Cougar club can see the green fields of Stanford University’s Stueber Rugby Stadium looming on the horizon.

“I think we have a fairly competitive league here in the Pacific Northwest, and we definitely had high expectations for our league,” said Leah Hammon, WSU rugby club’s co-coach, en route to the USA Rugby national championships, which start today.

“But this team’s never even been to the regional tournament before, so it’s been a wild ride.”

The Cougars are 11-0, earning the Women’s Collegiate Division II Pacific Regional title at Stanford earlier this month with wins over 2006 national champion UC Santa Cruz and Sacramento State. That gained them the fourth seed nationally and a trip to Sanford, Fla., for the round of 16 – along with a large debt.

“It cost approximately $15,000,” Hammon said of the cross-country trip, a cost the club members must raise themselves. Like many colleges, WSU’s recreation department uses student fees to support a portion of the club program’s basic expenses.

To defray the cost of two trips to California and one to Florida, the club is trying to raise about $20,000.

The Florida trip was worth every dime as WSU pounded LaSalle 36-5 before edging East Carolina, the No. 1 seed from the South, 26-20 and earning a trip to nationals.

“The skill level is greatly improved,” said Hammon, who, besides playing, shares coaching duties with Erin MacDonald. “The competition was much higher. Teams get more technical and more physical. It’s just the next level of competition.”

The wins put the three-year-old club – WSU had a rugby club before, but it had fallen dormant until being revived in 2006 – in new territory: the national semifinals, where the Cougars will face Shippensburg University from Pennsylvania, the No. 1 overall seed and defending national champions, this morning at 10.

“We don’t know a lot,” Hammon said of today’s opponent. “We know they like to run a lot and they have an outstanding head coach (Scott Stratton). They’re a very technical team, so we don’t anticipate they will make a lot of mistakes on the pitch.”

The Cougars will counter with the play of Hammon, whom MacDonald said is one of WSU’s best players, Cheney High’s Carly Kendall, and Alexis and Megan Bonny, who helped La Salle to two State 2B girls basketball titles in three years. They are among the 21 players who will make the trip.

No matter what happens this weekend (with a win, WSU would face either Stonehill College of Massachusetts or the University of Delaware in the finals), the Cougars feel they’ve taken giant steps this season.

There are 32 members of the club.

“About 95 percent of the players we get have never played rugby before college,” Hammon said.

•To help the WSU women’s rugby club go to www.womensrugby.wsu.edu.
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