Women’s rugby team aims for championship title

Returning and experienced players practice close range tackling and passing at practice. Women’s rugby is a full contact sport, just like the men’s team. (Claire Gentry)

The BYU women’s rugby program has brought home many wins for the university while consistently flying under the radar.

The program has existed for 18 years after being founded by a student in the year 2000. In those 18 years, the team has grown from a group of 12 girls to a team of over 40 and is currently ranked No. 3 in the nation.

Head Coach Tom Waqa took over the team in 2004 when the organization was still recognized as the Women’s Cougar Rugby Club. After coaching the unofficial team for 11 years, Waqa was chosen as the official coach of the women’s team when the school gave it extramural status in 2015.

The team prides itself on taking girls with little-to-no rugby experience and crafting them into elite, nationally recognized players. Recognizable names include six-time All-American and member of the USA national team Jordan Gray, former World Rugby 7’s team member Rebekah Siebach, and former national team member and current coaching assistant Rebekah Hebdon.

“I grew up playing different sports and found out that I could incorporate them all into rugby, and it ended up being my favorite (sport),” Hebdon said.

Stories like Hebdon’s are common, with most of the past and present players coming to the team with a background in sports like soccer, softball and track.

“My favorite moment of last season was seeing the new girls who just played one semester playing a game in the DI Elite semifinals,” Waqa said. “For new girls to come in and pick up the game after just two months and play at the highest level is very encouraging for the program.”

The team reached the final four once again last season, with a team made up of approximately 20 new players and led by captains Elle Peterson, Alisa Baker, and All-Americans Kainoa Ah Quin, Sia Skipps and Grace Taito.

“Given the squad that we had to take to the championship, I think it went really well,” said Tevita Atalifo, assistant head couch for the rugby team. “We were able to start around seven brand new players and still get to that level in the championship.”

Although the team is not a varsity program, they have competed and reached the final four in the Division 1 Elite Series over the last four years. However, Waqa said he believes the best decision for the program moving forward is to compete in the Division 1 league with other club teams.

“We switched divisions this year to play with the teams we can identify with as club teams,” Waqa said. “We’ve been playing in the DI Elite league for years with varsity teams that offer scholarships and academic assistance to their players. We do not have scholarships, so we want to play with the schools and colleges we can identify with.”

This move to the Division 1 league means a new pool of competitors and a new season schedule, with the competitive season beginning in the fall semester instead of the spring.

“Every game will be a challenge. I have no experience with these teams, their coaches or the level of skill played in the division,” Atalifo said. “It will be an interesting challenge.”

With the success of the team in the past, the program and its clout continue to grow on campus. This year, tryouts boasted a turnout of 91 girls.

Brinely Orr, a freshman who played high school rugby at the Lethbridge Collegiate Institute of Alberta, Canada, joined the team this year because of the reputation the program holds across the nation and in Canada.

“One of my assistant coaches, Hillary Hironaka, played for BYU,” Orr said. “She knew I wanted to play rugby in university, so she told me to try out for the team. I’d heard it was one of the best programs here because they always get close to that national championship.”

With a new roster of 42 solidified on Sept. 12, Waqa said he believes they have the potential to bring home the national championship this year.

“It is always a challenge with the girls coming to try and fill the shoes that the old girls leave behind for them,” Waqa said. “But our goal is to progress further than we have before.”

With the world of collegiate rugby on their side, as well as the growing support of the university itself, the women’s rugby program plans on continuing their success and reaching new heights in their new division.

Waqa said he hopes that, with this success, they can bring awareness to women’s rugby as a sport and as a university program.

“We are one of the winningest programs on campus, but 90 percent of campus doesn’t know about us,” Waqa said. “We do exist here at Helaman field and Southfield. Come and watch, you’ll love it.”

Games begin Sept. 21 with the first match being played against Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado. For more information on the women’s rugby roster, coaches or schedule, visit their official website.

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