November 15, 2013

Bowdoin College women embrace rugby

Varsity team plays in quarterfinals of national tournament

By Steve Solloway

(Continued from page 1)

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

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:

Twitter: SteveSolloway

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