Finding a place, discovering a sport

Women find strength, friendships in club rugby

Hannah Lockwood is training for the Olympics, and if you try to get in her way, you might get tackled.

The Oregon State grad’s goal is to make the inaugural U.S. women’s rugby team. A Canby native, Lockwood started playing rugby in high school, and came to Oregon State ready for the next level. However, there were challenges along the way. Since rugby is a club sport, a lot of work goes into the team itself.

“A lot of girls participated in rugby at my high school, but my freshman year at Oregon State, there weren’t many girls interested,” Lockwood explained. “It was also a transition to having to pay club dues and travel expenses and drive ourselves to games out of state.”

Lockwood was unfazed and continued to excel on the field while earning a degree in speech communications. And now she has her eye on 2016, when women’s rugby becomes an Olympic sport.

But as much as Lockwood loves and excels at the game, she said her favorite part of rugby is the relationships formed with her teammates.

“My best friend in the whole world played rugby with me at Oregon State,” Lockwood said. “And we never would have built that relationship if rugby hadn’t brought us together.”

Full-contact feminism

Unlike Lockwood, Oregon State senior and rugby team captain Caroline Midkiff had never played rugby before college. A timid freshman, Midkiff joined the team on a whim.

“Everyone goes to RecNight their freshman year,” Midkiff said. “When I got there, I saw a bunch of girls with mullets and mohawks and the next thing I knew I was playing rugby with them, and it just snowballed from there. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”

What Midkiff found was a family away from home.

“These girls are my best friends,” she said. “We’re all so different, but there’s something in us that made us play rugby. But really, anyone can play.”

Rugby is the only full contact sport offered to women at any level.

“Sometimes it’s hard for girls to learn to play because we’re not taught to get dirty and muddy and hit each other when we’re young,” Midkiff said.

But that’s exactly what happens.

At least twice a weak after classes finish for the day, the team members – women of all shapes and sizes – arrive at the Student Legacy Park, toss their bags and gear on the turf and take the field. As practice heats up players peel off sweatshirts and pants in favor of shorts and t-shirts.

The lone man on the field stands on the sidelines: head coach David Dickson. An East Coast transplant, Dickson arrived in Corvallis in pursuit of a Ph.D. in 2005.

“Corvallis didn’t have a men’s club team at that time, so I started coaching because it was my only outlet to the sport,” he said.

Dickson grew up watching his father play and won a national championship in 2002 with the New Haven Rugby Club. Since 2009, he’s also been a member of the Corvallis Brewers rugby team. “I just love the sport,” Dickson said of his long-term involvement. “I’ve loved it since I started playing. You have to be fit and strong like athletes in other sports, but rugby is an opportunity for all sizes of people, and it takes a particular level of commitment.”

Dickson admits coaching women comes with a different set of challenges. He worked with the men for several years before moving over to coach the women’s team.

“Rarely do you have a problem getting a male rugby player to be aggressive,” he said. “Sometimes that’s harder with the women. They are more analytical and ask more questions.”

Calling all recruits

Questions are encouraged, because despite its rising popularly, rugby is not a well-known sport in the United States.

Everyone involved in women’s rugby at Oregon State, from the players to the coaches wishes more women would learn about the sport and participate. They offer the same sense of belonging they’ve found in rugby to anyone and everyone.

“Anyone can play,” Midkiff encouraged. “We have girls that are five feet tall and 98 pounds and people who are 5’11”. There are up to 15 spots on the field at a time, so there’s a position for everyone.”

There are positions for everyone off the field as well.

Because rugby is a club sport at Oregon State, not every member of the team is as committed as Midkiff. Practices aren’t mandatory, and sometimes Dickson doesn’t have enough players turn up for his optional training days.

However, he said attendance has improved over the past three years.

Team members must pay annual dues and take responsibility for managing the business side of their sport including fundraising for uniforms and travel.

Dickson views this as an opportunity for the student athletes to step up and learn responsibility.

At the same time, many are learning the game. Players join the team with little to no experience, but Dickson said that’s changing.

“The youth rugby organizations in Oregon are becoming really popular, “ he said. “So I have some younger players coming in now who have played before.”

Dickson said players like Lockwood, who have played rugby before college, become leaders on the team.

“I can’t take credit for Hannah and her talent,” Dickson admitted. “She was an incredible athlete when I met her.”

Junior Danni Riggleman started playing rugby in high school in St. Paul, Ore., and the opportunity to play rugby contributed to her decision to attend Oregon State.

She knew she belonged in the sport.

“The culture is just fun,” she explained. “No matter where you go in the country, if you say you play rugby, you automatically have a friend. It’s really great.”

Learning the basics of rugby

The Oregon State rugby team plays both versions of rugby: sevens and 15s. Sevens is played in the fall, while 15s is played in the winter and early spring. The names of the versions of the game refer to how many players are on the field for each team. Sevens is faster: each game is only 15 minutes long, while 15s is two grueling periods of 40 minutes each.

Only backwards passing is allowed. Crossing the goal line is called a “try”, which is worth five points. After that, the scoring team is allowed an opportunity to kick the ball for a conversion, worth two points.

This season, the women’s rugby team took on Western Oregon University, the University of Oregon, Washington State University, and the University of Washington.

Away games are intense and expensive. Few fans travel to watch the team and with teams like Stanford and Washington State dominating national rankings, Oregon State’s division is brutal.

But the players don’t mind. They have each other.

“We do a lot of team bonding,” Riggleman said. “We try to create friendships and make it easy for everyone to learn the rugby culture, the rules and get a really full experience out of it.”

The push for varsity status

As rugby grows as a sport, many schools are elevating their programs to varsity status. East Coast, Ivy League universities were the first to go varsity, and now the movement has made it to the West Coast, but Dickson expects challenges.

“To be a varsity sport we need to prove that we have consistent funding, that is our main challenge, but the decision will ultimately be the athletic department’s to make.”

Oregon State Rugby, should it move to varsity standing, would need other teams to play against. Dickson said it’s possible that the most of the Pac 12 conference will make the move together at some point.

“The popularity is increasing, and I think the move is inevitable,” Dickson said. “But I’ll also need more players. We only have about 25 dedicated players right now. We should have around 40.”

The move to varsity could also mean funding for coaching positions. Dickson and his staff of assistant coaches are all volunteers now, and Dickson said he doesn’t have time for much outside of coaching rugby and his day job as an intellectual property and licensing manager for Oregon State’s Office for Commercialization and Corporate Development.

Senior Haley Dietz helps Dickson on the sidelines as an assistant coach. Sidelined by a shoulder injury, Dietz couldn’t bear the thought of not being involved with her team, her best friends.

Dietz is a math major with an emphasis in education, and put her skills to use as rugby team treasurer.

“Coaching is hard,” she admitted. “Explaining a vision you have is a lot harder as a coach than as a player. You have to see things from their eyes and know how to instruct them from the sidelines. Even more so, it’s hard as a former player to not be out there on the field with them every Saturday. There’s something about taking the field with 14 of your closest teammates that you can’t find anywhere else.”

Dietz said moving up to varsity status would be “awesome.”

“Being completely student-run is a huge stressor on the players. Although Rec Sports offers a ton of training and assistance, we’re still responsible for the whole organization. It feels like a small business on top of our other jobs, on top of school and being an athlete.”

Olympic dreams

There is light at the end of the tunnel for some dedicated, talented rugby players. Professional, international tournaments like the World Cup have been going on for decades. Sevens rugby for men and women will be include in the Olympics for the first time in 2016, and top athletes like Lockwood are busy training.

Lockwood turned her passion for rugby into a career, working in San Diego for a Seattle-based company called Serevi, which runs youth rugby camps.

“Working for Serevi allows me to pursue my passion on and off the field; coaching and training,” Lockwood said.

Lockwood uses every spare moment to train, which has earned her a place in the pool to make the national 15s team and the Olympic sevens team. She said training is going well so far.

“I’m the type of athlete where I’m not fast, and I’m not big, so I have to rely on my brain, and a lot of times that means I have to work harder than some because I don’t have the pure talent,” Lockwood said.

Her next step is to go on tour with the national team to play in tournaments and gain experience on the international stage before the Olympics, but Lockwood said her long-term goal is to become a rugby coach. And like her old friends at Oregon State, Lockwood said she wants to encourage everyone to get involved and learn more about the sport.

“It’s so rare that every single type of person can find a spot on the rugby field,” Lockwood said. “Even if it’s just as a spectator, rugby is something everyone should experience at least once in their lives.”

To learn more about Oregon State Women’s Rugby and their upcoming schedule, click here




Introduction to Rugby

Rugby union is played on a pitch approx. the size of a football field. There are 15 players per side and one referee. The game consists of two 40-minute halves with a five minute halftime.
The ball is oblong, slightly larger than a football.
A rugby ball must never be passed forward. The ball may be advanced by running or kicking it forward or passing it laterally to create gaps in the defense.
There are no “downs” or stoppages in play (other than penalties) in rugby. When a ball carrier gets tackled, she must release the ball immediately.

Scoring

Scoring can happen 4 ways:

Try (5 pts) – The ball carrier must cross the try line and ground the ball in the midst of full play.
Conversion (2 pts) - The goal kicker must kick a conversion from the mark perpendicular to the try line.
Penalty (3 pts) – When a penalty is awarded, the captain may elect to “kick for points” and give his kicker a shot at converting a goal.
Drop kick (3 pts) – At any time during regular play, any player may drop kick the ball through the goal posts.

Tactics

Scrum – a method for restarting play after an infraction. Eight players from each side interlock and engage shoulders forming a tunnel where the scrumhalf feeds the ball. The forwards fight with their feet for possession.
Ruck – After a tackle, a ruck is formed when two opposing players meet over the ball in an attempt to drive the opposing team backwards to gain control of the ball.
Maul – Similar to a ruck but the ball carrier has not been tackled to the ground.
Lineout - Offense and defense line up perpendicular to the touchline (out of bounds) to receive a ball thrown back onto the field.