BRUNSWICK — Pam Zabala of Bowdoin College had the ball in her hands and room to run. Hands and arms reached for her waist and thighs, trying to bring her down. Finally, three or four opposing players gang tackled her.
“Go for her knees,” said one of the College of Holy Cross players to teammates picking themselves off the ground. “It’s the only way we’ll stop her.”
Women tackling women. It looked a bit like American football but wasn’t. It’s rugby, played on several campuses in Maine but out of sight, out of mind to most people. A crowd of perhaps several dozen watched Bowdoin play the College of Holy Cross from Massachusetts on Saturday on Pickard Field, far behind the Farley Fieldhouse, in the first round of the American College Rugby Association playoffs. From almost a mile away at Whittier Field, the sound of hundreds of fans cheering the end of the Colby-Bowdoin football game carried over the trees.
Women’s rugby became a varsity sport at Bowdoin in 2002 with the support of then-athletic director Jeff Ward. He believed rugby would be a positive presence on the Bowdoin campus. He also didn’t want to lose MaryBeth Mathews, who had coached and nurtured the sport when it was a club team.
Ward believed he saw something special in this sport, first played in England some 180 years ago but still virtually unknown in America. Today, some 300 women’s teams play the game on college campuses across the country. That’s not a big number – there are about 2,400 four-year colleges and universities in the United States.
Bowdoin won Saturday’s game, 54-7, its eighth victory in nine games this season. It travels to New York on Saturday to play Hamilton College in the national tournament quarterfinals. Win and they play in the semifinals the next day.
Their success seems to be a secret. But ask the women who play rugby at Bowdoin if the lack of fans and publicity and applause somehow diminishes what they do. Their answer? It doesn’t. Their reward is simply playing the game. It is like no other.
Rugby football has some similarities with American football, but there are many differences. A ball maybe twice the size of a football must be carried over the goal line and touched to the ground for a score. In rugby it’s called a try and it’s worth five points – in football it’s called a touchdown, although players rarely complete the act. Teams can also score on conversion kicks (two points), penalty goals (three points), and dropped goals (three points).
The tackling is fierce and players wear no pads – skin and bone absorb the contact. Women play by the same rugby rules as men, which separates it from hockey and lacrosse, sports in which women have far less body contact.
Occasionally, players walk off the pitch with concussions and broken bones. Much more common are the spectacular bruises that show up a day or two later. Not that players complain. On a campus where fall sports teams have won seven of every 10 games they played this season, these so-called badges of honor separate the rugby players from the others.
“Everyone wants to get a black eye,” said Amanda Montenegro, a junior from Hialeah, Fla. She’s suffered a concussion and broken pinky finger and assures her parents she’s taking care of herself.
Maura Allen, a senior from Superior, Colo., pulled up the sleeve of her sweatshirt to show off bruises on her upper arm. Pam Zabala, a first-year player from Peabody, Mass., talked of the dress she wore after a large bruise appeared on her leg. She wanted classmates to know she earned that bruise playing rugby.
Rob Cumby of Washington, D.C, a member of Bowdoin’s crew team, sometimes cringed as he watched Montenegro play Saturday. She’s his girlfriend and very athletic but not very big.
“My heart stops every time she gets hit or she tackles someone,” he said. “But I understand. She loves this game.”
Rugby challenges these players in ways no other sport has. Montenegro has played soccer since she was about 5 years old. Allen has played hockey for as long and once rugby season is over she will lace up her skates again.
Zabala, the biggest player on the team, considered playing on the football team’s offensive or defensive line in high school. Emily Murray, a senior, and one of 40 year-round residents on Matinicus Island off Rockland, was a cyclist at Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire.
“The two sports actually have a lot in common,” said Murray. “My cycling coach told me when I was most tired and hurting late in a race that was the time to attack and pull away from the others because they were hurting, too. We play 80 minutes of rugby and late in the game everyone is tired and hurting and that’s when you pick it up.”
Anna Piotti, a sophomore from the small central Maine town of Unity, played field hockey, basketball and ran track at Mount View High in Thorndike. She didn’t think she was good enough to play any of those sports in college. Her father was an accomplished sailor at MIT and she joined the sailing team at Bowdoin.
“I lasted two weeks,” she said. “I’m competitive with myself, but I’m not competitive towards other teams. I mean, I don’t care about the score.”
She missed the camaraderie with teammates. One day she and her roommate saw women passing a rugby ball. The two joined in. The next thing Piotti knew, she was on the rugby team. She’s all arms and legs and looks the part of a hurdler or basketball player. Instead, she’s developed into one of the best rugby players in Bowdoin’s conference.
“At first, my parents were a little amazed how good I was,” said Piotti. “I was playing for exactly a month. They saw I was having fun.
“It’s getting colder now. When you’re tackled you feel it a little more. But I end the game with a smile on my face … It empowers me.”
Practically none of Mathews’ players had ever played rugby, which is not offered in most high schools. Bowdoin rugby may be the ultimate walk-on sport.
“We weren’t expected to play rugby,” said Murray. “We all chose to play it.”
Ask them what skills are needed to play rugby at a high level, and you hear trust, good hands, confidence.
Maura Allen spoke of something else. “In rugby, if something fails, you immediately have to come up with another plan. You have to be creative. There are no huddles. There isn’t time to stop and talk about what we do next. I have to trust we’re going to communicate with each other on the run.”
Jeff Ward is on the sideline for most games. He’s now an administrator with the college rugby conference.
“I like rugby because it breaks down the stereotypes and that can be very powerful,” he added. “Athletics at its best does it very well. This sport embraces contact and doesn’t simply tolerate it. I like it for the women who are choosing to play.”
At Saturday’s game, spectator Linda Russell, a former field hockey player, said nothing had prepared her for her first women’s rugby game.
She works in the Bowdoin music department and came to watch a Bowdoin player, sophomore Emily King of Pikesville, Md, who works with her.
She said she walked away with an understanding of the spirit of the game.
“As a mother, you tell your daughters you’re just as good as boys,” she said. “As a girl, society told us being aggressive was bad. I never let my jock friends know I was a student. I never let my student friends know I was a jock.”
Russell loved what she saw. So many years after her playing days, she felt empowered.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: