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A Tenacious Team
April 29, 2011
GW Women’s Rugby ended their 2010-11 season ranked fifth in the nation.
By Julia Parmley
On April 17, the GW women’s rugby team faced off against Western Washington State.
It was the quarterfinals of the USA Rugby Division II College Playoffs in San Diego, Calif.
Ranked number one in the country, Western Washington State had handily defeated an opponent 67-17 the day before.
But the ninth-ranked GW team was ready for what Rugby Magazine deemed “the battle of the Washingtons.”
“We’ve always been the underdogs,” said GW rugby team president Michelle Perna. “Nobody expected us to come close to this team. But we were ready.”
And ready they were. While GW ultimately lost to Washington State 20-12 in overtime, they proved they had the mettle to face off against one of the best rugby teams in the U.S.
“It may seem strange, but the proudest moment of my time at GW was when we walked off the field after our loss,” said senior and team captain Patricia Nowlan. “Although we lost, I knew we left everything we had on that field—every last ounce of strength, determination and heart. It was tough, but I could not be disappointed in myself or in my team, because we played a fantastic game of rugby.”
Ms. Perna said she believes this year’s team is “hands down the best” in their division. “I think everybody is going to remember our name because we were right up there with that number one team,” said Ms. Perna. “Everyone on our team knows we are the best Division II team in the nation.”
This confidence—and a lot of hard work—translated this year into one of the most successful seasons the GW club team has ever had. Undefeated in both the fall and spring, the 45-member team ended the 2010-11 season ranked number one in the Potomac Rugby Union and fifth in the nation.
Originally played in the United Kingdom, rugby is a style of football in which the ball is carried or kicked toward goals on either end of a rugby field, or pitch. It’s an aggressive game that requires a great amount of stamina and strength.
“Some of these girls have never played an organized sport in their life, and now I can say every single one should be considered an athlete,” said Ms. Perna.
The team’s accomplishments can be partly attributed to Kenny Pope who will retire this weekend after four years as a volunteer coach for the team. Ms. Perna said Mr. Pope has brought the team “to the next level” with his constant scrutiny of game tape and emphasis on improving the team’s ruggers, or defensive players.
“Kenny and his wife April have truly carried this team so far. They are way more than coaches,” said Ms. Perna. “They don’t just show up at practice; they show up at birthday parties and other sporting events. The fact that they are so involved with us on and off the field has significantly brought our team together.”
Mr. Pope said he and his wife, who plays rugby on local teams, believe having a close-knit team improves their performance come game time.
“I think the team plays well together because they consider each other sisters,” he said. “If you know the people next to you on the field, then you can trust them, and I think that helps with game play.”
What the team lacks in size—Ms. Perna said GW’s team is smaller than most—they make up in hard work. The team practices three times a week on fields around the District. Points of focus: defense, fitness and rucking, where players block their opponents so that their own team can get the ball.
Mr. Pope tells the girls that rucking is an opportunity “to beast” their opponents. “He wants to see teams flying away from the ball,” said Ms. Perna.
At 5-feet tall, Ms. Pera doesn’t appear like someone who would enjoy getting in the middle of a ruck, but she said the adrenaline the sport brings—as well as a desire to protect her teammates—helps her endure bumps and bruises over the course of an 80-minute game.
“It definitely hurts when you get hit, especially if you aren’t ready for it; if you don’t brace yourself, you can get the wind knocked out of you,” she said. “But the human body is capable of incredible feats. Once my confidence built up, there was no stopping me, and that confidence can carry you through a game. It makes you want to get up and keep playing.
“What we endure mentally, physically and emotionally is beyond any other sport I’ve ever experienced,” she said. “But there’s a moment when you’re no longer afraid and you use the butterflies to your advantage.”
The team’s speed and endurance also give them an edge over their opponents. Ms. Perna said GW “runs circles” around other teams. “We don’t get tired and we hit hard every time.”
And it’s the deep kinship the sport brews that keeps the team growing year after year.
“You are putting your body on the line, and you’re putting it on the line for all your other teammates as well,” said Ms. Perna. “The fact that these girls are willing to risk their health for me is what creates the bond on the team.
“I’ve never been on a team like this in my life,” she added. “We’re just very excited and happy to be in each other’s presence. We’ve become as tight as any team could become.”
Senior Marielle Buccilli, a team captain, said this season has been “a dream.” “When we sing our GW fight song and go out and take the field, that is one of the best feelings in the world for me and one that I will remember forever,” she said. “It’s been an amazing season, and we have worked very hard and been very fortunate. I am very proud of my team this season and of all of our accomplishments.”
On Saturday, the team competed in their last tournament of the season at “Ruggerfest” in Manassas Park, Va. , where they faced American University and George Mason University. But Ms. Perna said the group already has its sights set on next season.
“This team has more heart than any other team I’ve been a part of,” she said. “We are so thrilled with the past four years and what Kenny and April have done for this team, and we will continue the momentum they’ve brought to this team. We are not close to stopping. We are going to climb to the top.”
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