When Patricia Walton ‘13 came to Vassar four years ago, she planned to go out for the swim team and needed to do something in the fall to get in shape. “I’d never played rugby before but decided to use it as a conditioning sport,” Walton says. “Then I fell in love with it.”
The swimming team’s loss was the rugby team’s gain. Walton was a tri-captain of this year’s squad, which went undefeated in the spring season until the final game of the Beast of the East, a tournament for top club teams on the East Coast.
Coach Tony Brown says Walton’s story is typical. Only one of his current players, Shanaye Williams ’13, had ever played rugby before coming to Vassar. But over the past 18 seasons, he’s been able to find enough players with talent and grit to field winning teams 17 times. “My pitch to prospective players is simple: ‘If you want to learn how to play rugby, I’ll teach you,’” Brown says. “And if you’ve never played before, there are no bad habits to break.”
The players say Brown, who also coaches the men’s team, is particularly adept at game strategy, something that has enabled Vassar to defeat teams that may be stronger physically.“We’re smaller than a lot of teams, but we seem to have a better handle than most teams on technique and strategy,” Walton says.
Hannah Bober ’13, another tri-captain, agrees. “You can see some of the other teams getting frustrated when we’re beating them,” says Bober, who at 5-foot-5 and 120 pounds is one of the smallest players on the team. “We’re always well prepared and I always go into a game feeling if we play our best, we’ll win; the opponent doesn’t matter.”
Bober has never had a serious injury playing rugby, but she’s absorbed her share of vicious hits. “Sometimes you’re running and then suddenly you’re on the ground and don’t quite remember how you got there,” she says. “But we’re a real close-knit team and we look out for each other.”
Junior tri-captain Dallas Robinson says the physical intensity of the game is what makes it most appealing. “All that contact makes it hard to get out of bed the next day, sometimes,” Robinson says. “But sharing all that pain is what brings us together as teammates.”
A basketball player in high school, Robinson said she decided to try a different sport when she got to college. “I saw the rugby sign-up table at freshmen orientation and decided, ‘Oh, yeah, this is something I want to do,’” she says. “I had no idea how to play when I got here, but it’s empowering to do something that physical with 14 of your closest friends. The bonds on the team are strong, going though what we go through together.”
Walton says playing rugby enables her to set aside the pressures of college life. “When you’re on the field doing something that intense, you forget about everything else,” she says. “It’s definitely a stress reliever.”
It took this year’s team a few games to gel. The Brewers split their first six games of the fall season but set the tone for the spring by beating a strong Rutgers squad, 39-29, in November. After splitting a pair of games in Spain during Spring Break, the team won its next four games by a combined score of 209-36, including a 64-7 thrashing of Yale. Vassar then won twice and tied once in the Beast of the East tourney before falling in the final game, 22-5, to the University of Albany.
“That Rutgers game was an important win for us,” Brown says. “We had to play our best to win, and it carried over to the spring season.”
The team is losing some of its best players -- including Walton, Bober and Williams – to graduation, but Robinson says she’s confident Vassar’s strong rugby tradition will continue. “We have some strong rising seniors, and I’ll be actively recruiting in the fall,” she says.
Brown says the increasing number of varsity sports and other campus activities available at Vassar have contributed to some drop in numbers on the rugby teams, but he’s still confident he can field competitive teams. “The other day, I saw some freshmen playing flag football, and I watched one player for about five minutes and recruited her for next year’s team,” he says.