November 15, 2013

Bowdoin College women embrace rugby

Varsity team plays in quarterfinals of national tournament

By Steve Solloway

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.

click image to enlarge

Bowdoin College women’s rugby players Pamela Zabala, left, holding onto the ball carrier, and Addison Carvajal try to tackle a Holy Cross player during a playoff game in Brunswick on Saturday. Bowdoin plays in the national quarterfinals this Saturday.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Bowdoin College women’s rugby team member Addison Carvajal puts her head into a Holy Cross player as her teammate passes the ball during playoff action in Brunswick last Saturday.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

“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.

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