Increased turnout has women’s rugby moving in the right direction

Ellie+Harsh+and+Hannah+Chang+embrace+after+a+Calvin+try+against+Saginaw+Valley+State+on+Sept.+25.

Alicia Vassallo

Ellie Harsh and Hannah Chang embrace after a Calvin try against Saginaw Valley State on Sept. 25.

During its first season in 2010, the women’s rugby team didn’t have a coach. They wore hand-me-down jerseys from the men’s team that were “ripped, stained, and two sizes too big.” They barely had enough players to make a team. They lost all their matches. Now, eleven years later, the team not only has a coach and their own uniforms, they have more participants and they’re scoring more than they ever have before. 

A Calvin-sponsored club around 30 women strong, the team has had three matches so far this season. In their first match, the team managed only three points in a loss to Saginaw Valley. They picked up the pace in their next matches, however, scoring six points apiece in two competitive matches. According to team president Alicia Vassallo ’22, the team scored about three times throughout the whole 2019 season. Now they’re scoring twice that amount in a single match against big schools such as Central Michigan, Ferris State and Saginaw Valley State. 

“We have some hope this year, which is really exciting. The record doesn’t sound good, but it’s still really encouraging if you know the team’s history,” Vassallo said, crediting this year’s young team of rookie first-year students and sophomores for bringing good energy. “You see that fire ignite and they get so excited about it and it’s really awesome to see.”

The women on the team chose to take up the sport for a variety of reasons; they may have had a dad or a brother who played, or they wanted to try something more physical, or they simply wanted a fun, social activity to join after more than a year of the pandemic. Vassallo believes that the community nature of rugby is even stronger than in other sports.

“It gets a little heated; it’s a very physical sport. But you get off the field and have pizza together, and you can make some really good friendships or acquaintances,” she said. “Some schools struggle with numbers, and when that happens, other teams have a couple extra people [they] send over to your team.”

The rugby community within Calvin is strong as well. Alumni are still involved with the team; they come to the matches and help coach a little. Calvin even has an alumni rugby association. Jason Arndt, the coach for both the men’s and women’s teams, played rugby as a grade-school student and when he was at Calvin. He’s coached at Calvin for three years now. 

Besides the community aspect, the sport is also unique due to the diversity of its players. Rugby is welcoming to all types of bodies and abilities. 

“There are positions for pretty much any build, any shape,” Vassallo said. “You’re really small — you can run fast. You are great for the backline if you’re muscular. [If you’re] really strong, you’re great for the forwards. It’s very accepting.”

The team holds practices twice a week and is always looking for new members. On Fridays before games, Calvin’s women’s and men’s teams meet for a joint hour-long practice. There is no prior experience or knowledge of the sport required to join. Vassallo estimates that about 95 percent of the current team members are beginners. Each new member is trained how to tackle safely, so injuries are infrequent and mild when they occur.

“We’ve had a lot of freshmen this year. So it’s a lot of learning, teaching the basics and just playing the game,” Arndt said about his goals for the season. “Getting used to tackling and getting used to contact — doing it safely and doing it the right way. Making sure that they understand how they can get hurt, so that they can avoid being in those situations.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the women’s rugby team, you can email Vassallo at [email protected] or [email protected]. You can also check out the team’s Instagram @calvin_womens_rugby and cheer on the team at their next match against Grand Valley at 11 a.m. on Oct. 16 at Phi Chi Field.