Ithaca Women’s Rugby: Same Time Next Year
Continued from previous post…
Like all sports that involve a lot of open-field running, much of rugby is about picking out openings and hitting seams. And in that department, the Ithaca College women’s rugby team excels—in more ways than one.
When last we visited with the IC Renegades, the team was prepping for a trip to the American Collegiate Rugby Association’s Mid-West regional, having earned the right to do so by turning in an undefeated regular season record and a resounding win in the first round of the national tournament.
Given that they are a collegiate club team playing against largely varsity-funded competition, the Renegades are used to simultaneously facing two adversaries—the opposing squad…and their own checkbook. Both battles get tougher as success mounts, which is why the resource-challenged team found itself drawing straws as to whose personal cars would be pressed into duty to transport the team 310 miles to Notre Dame College, in South Euclid, Ohio.
And did I mention that a major blizzard was forecast for most of the area they would have to traverse?
Leaving on Friday, the day before their sweet sixteen matchup against the University of Cincinnati, the team’s caravan passed through the southern tip of the first wave of snowstorms that would eventually bury the city of Buffalo. Their reward for braving the elements was…well, braving the elements. “Not a good weather weekend for rugby,” said captain Alexa Darwish, displaying a talent for understatement. “It was a pretty interesting experience,” her co-captain, Mary Beth Tyson, added dryly.
When play began the next day, temperatures were in the 30s, and efforts to clear two inches of snow from the pitch were still underway. Fortunately, by the time Ithaca took the field for their game, the snow had been mostly removed, thus clearing the way for the powerful Renegade offense to operate at full speed. The result was an 87–12 win. And a date with destiny.
One year prior, almost to the day, Ithaca had been in the exact same situation: facing a game against Notre Dame College, with a trip to the national final four on the line. To the surprise of very few, the far more experienced Falcons won that game—but by the slimmest of margins. One single point.
After chewing on that loss for 366 days, “This was our Rocky II,” said Darwish. “This was our chance to beat Apollo Creed.”
But it wouldn’t be easy. While the Renegades had traveled nearly six hours in sketchy weather for the rematch, their opponents had merely to stroll across their own campus for a regional final that amounted to a home game for the varsity-funded, scholarship-granting Notre Dame College team.
This is the point in the story at which it would be my pleasure to share a detailed account of exactly how a team with next to nothing stacked in its favor beat the odds and engineered a trip to their first final four. But sometimes Goliath does indeed beat David.
“We started the first half kind of hesitant—a little slow,” said Tyson. “We were not our usual selves. And they started out really strong.” And in a game like rugby, where momentum matters hugely, a slow start is especially difficult to overcome. At halftime, Ithaca trailed 29–0.
Given those circumstances, most teams would have a hard time maintaining their poise and resolve in the second half. Deficits of 29 points to an elite team are tough to transcend. But it was then that Tyson says she discovered a lot about the Renegades. “I learned how close our team is. How much we respect and love one another. We were losing by a lot, and it would’ve been easy for people to not try so hard in the second half. Then one person made a really big hit to get the ball back for us, and all of a sudden our whole team had each other’s backs and we were just fighting for each other. It was a lot of people’s last game, and we were playing for them.”
“The final score [41–5] is a little bit of a misrepresentation of how hard we did play,” added Darwish. “In the second half we really gave them a lot tougher match than the score would suggest. I think we really picked it up and proved that we deserved to be there despite what the scoreboard might say.”
The senior co-captain would have the opportunity to share those sentiments with her team the evening that we spoke, for as Renegades president Rachel Karlins explained, it was “Rugby Thanksgiving” that night. “We invite the whole team over, and our two coaches, and we have a potluck. That’s kind of our closing debrief for the season, and a good way to get a last team bonding experience. And to celebrate.”
Here’s the funny thing. There’s a reason that Rugby Thanksgiving would be the first opportunity for the team as a group to reflect upon their final game. See, they never had the chance to do so in its immediate aftermath. With no money for a hotel in Ohio, they jumped back in their caravan of cars and made the long drive back to Ithaca that Sunday night. In clear weather, all the way through.
On Monday, a chartered bus carrying the Niagara University women’s basketball team left western Pennsylvania after playing the University of Pittsburgh. Thirty miles away from their campus outside of Buffalo, the bus came to a stop, stuck in a blinding snowstorm. They remained there for 22 more hours before a highway patrol could come to their aid.
Had the Renegades possessed the funding to stay overnight after their game against Notre Dame, it’s entirely possible they would’ve found themselves in the same situation—but minus the comfortably-appointed bus.
Now I ask you: Do these women have a talent for hitting seams, or what?