Of Renegades and Rugby

Every now and then I get to thinking about my days as a Bomber. Relax, all you folks at Homeland Security…just settle down. I was referring to life as an Ithaca College Bomber.

My athletic career while at Ithaca is the stuff basketball legends are made of. In my junior year, for instance, I managed to pull off a triple double:  28 points/16 rebounds/18 DNP–Coach’s Decisions.

Aside from the occasional basket though, what I remember the most clearly are the sensory experiences. I can close my eyes and bring them back almost at will. The buzz of the crowd in anticipation of tip-off. The fresh leather smell of a brand new pair of Adidas. The feel of sturdy, heavily-lacquered pine under my butt for extraordinary lengths of time.   

While I was collecting these memories (and associated splinters), one thing that never entered my mind was that I would ever have to pay for the right to play. I enjoyed all of the benefits of collegiate competition while completely oblivious to whether or not the team had enough gas money to get to the next game.

ICRenegadesAnd that is why I was so intrigued when I heard about the plight of the Renegades, the Ithaca College women’s rugby team.

First, the good news. The Renegades finished their regular season last month with a perfect 8–0 record. Few of those games featured final scores that were remotely close, and in one contest the opposing team waved a white flag and ran for the buses at halftime, down 64–0. And while they inflicted the majority of their damage within their own Division II universe, Ithaca wasn’t averse to a Division I beatdown either, roughing up Syracuse by a score of 47–5.

Lest you think this season is an anomaly, you should know that it’s basically a replay of last year’s campaign, in which the Renegades carried just one loss into the national playoffs. Once there, they came within a single point of advancing to the national final four.

What makes this all the more remarkable is that women’s rugby at Ithaca is a club sport, while many of the schools that the Renegades toy with on the pitch enjoy varsity status. Notre Dame College, the team that nosed Ithaca out of the playoffs in last year’s regional final, even grants scholarships!

In practical terms, what that means is that on most weeks the Renegades compete against teams that have salaried coaches, uniforms, dedicated practice facilities, and a budget for travel. In comparison, Ithaca has…each other—and a huge-hearted coach named Dave Sanders, who volunteers both his time and the expertise that comes from having been a six-time New York state champion in his own collegiate playing career. Ithaca College, as most colleges do with their club sports teams, kicks in a stipend that’s slightly north of $1,000.

Somehow the Renegades make it all work though, assuming all of the management and administrative duties associated with playing a regional schedule themselves, as well as engaging in a variety of creative fundraising activities. Despite their commitment and considerable organizational talents, however, the team can’t entirely escape the cost of travel. And the further you go in the national tournament…well, the further you go in the national tournament.

When I caught up by phone with Renegades president, Rachel Karlins, and her two captains, Alexa Darwish and Mary Beth Tyson, the team was finishing up their packing for a 300-mile drive to South Euclid, Ohio, where they had been sent inexplicably to play in the Mid-West Regional of the American Collegiate Rugby Association’s Division II Championship, despite the Mid-Atlantic Region’s location in Poughkeepsie, NY—almost two hours closer.

Undaunted by the upcoming trip, the team’s leadership group focused instead on the fact that Ithaca’s undefeated season had earned them the right to play their first-round game at home, where they’d dispatched Dennison, 59-10. So six hours in a set of rented vans…no problem. Should they post two wins in Ohio, however…

Problem.

The ACRA Final Four is to be played in early December in Palm Coast, Florida. Which may as well be in Palm Springs, in terms of affordable accessibility. Theoretically, the Renegades could suck it up and make the multi-day van or bus ride down and back. But in addition to the actual cost of vehicle rental, gas, and food and housing in transit, there would be the physical toll on the team’s ability to prepare adequately to play against the best teams in the country. And then there was this: Alexa pointed out that the team would miss too much school at a time that bumped right up against final exams.

Oh yeah, I thought, these collegians actually are student-athletes. Funny what happens to one’s perspective when watching too much college football coverage.

It wasn’t like the Renegades had been caught completely unaware by this financial conundrum. The experience of the previous year had verified that the team was indeed a national-caliber talent, so at some point during the season, they’d had the foresight to undertake a crowd-funding campaign (http://www.gofundme.com/RenegadesNationals, for those of you scoring at home). But while every penny pledged was both helpful and appreciated, they are still eye-to-eye with fiscal reality. Are the Renegades simply too good for their budget?

I wished Rachel, Alexa, and Mary Beth the best, and ended the call with a new respect for the quality of individual that my alma mater is turning out. The next morning, a news item caught my eye. Unseasonably early “lake effect” heavy snow and freezing temperatures were rolling into northeast Ohio for the weekend, directly into the path of the Renegades as they headed west.

To be continued…

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