Sports

Team seeks varsity recognition

By
Sports Staff Writer
Thursday, November 3, 2011

Though the women’s rugby team has been quietly pushing for varsity status for the past 10 years, team members recently began appealing to University officials with renewed vigor. Their fight picked up after President Ruth Simmons’ Oct. 17 response to the Athletics Review Committee’s recommendations, which stated no teams would be cut.

The club team launched an online petition and a Facebook event, urging friends, family members and Brown community members for support. That weekend, team members stood outside the Corporation meeting, handing out flyers to Corporation members that boasted a number of the team’s academic and athletic achievements.

And the team just added another talking point to that list, winning its sixth consecutive Ivy title Oct. 22. The squad has made three consecutive appearances at the National Final Four and has been ranked in the top five nationally for seven years.

The women’s rugby program began in 1977, five years after the first women’s teams were started at University of Colorado at Boulder, Colorado State University at Fort Collins and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But despite its success, the team is struggling to maintain the funds necessary for high-level play. Through donations and fundraising events, team members are responsible for raising an annual budget of approximately $80,000.

“It’s stressful in terms of trying to be a student and an athlete and fundraising,” said Michelle Vander Ploeg ’12, the team’s president.

The team puts these funds toward paying a trainer, traveling expenses, uniforms, medical care and referees. Travel outside the Ivy League, which occurs at least three times a year, consumes a large portion of the budget. The Sweet 16 competition is held either in Florida or Ohio, and the Final Four is always at Stanford University, said Head Coach Kerrissa Heffernan, the associate director of the Swearer Center for Public Service. “And at the end, students are still coughing up money to go to nationals,” she said.

Unlike other club teams, the rugby team is under the jurisdiction of a national body, USA Rugby, which dictates the schedule of rugby teams across the country. To compete at the highest level, the team must be a member of USA Rugby and compete according to schedule.

“We operate like a varsity sport,” Heffernan said. “We have a similar budget, the same kinds of travel arrangements and same kinds of leagues.”

Varsity status and University assistance would relieve the students and coaches of the financial burden that accompanies success in the USA Rugby leagues.

But Director of Athletics Michael Goldberger said the team needs more than a winning record to become a varsity sport. “What a fabulous team over the years, and so successful,” he said. “But it’s a combination of things. There is a lack of facilities, locker rooms or office space that is needed for a successful varsity team.”

Currently, no other Ivy League rugby team holds varsity status. Rumors started flying after Harvard won the Division II Championships last April that the team would achieve varsity status as a result of its win.

“As one of the teams going to the (Division I) Championships, it was kind of difficult to see that — that another Ivy was taking their team into consideration,” Vander Ploeg said.

But Harvard’s team will maintain its club status “for the foreseeable future,” according to a Oct. 28 article in the Harvard Crimson.

Vander Ploeg said the team’s online petition caught the attention of women’s rugby teams across the U.S.

“Because women’s rugby and rugby in the U.S. is getting a lot bigger, they are trying to help us by signing it to promote women’s rugby across the country,” she said.

The rugby team will continue its push throughout the year.

Goldberger said the issue will be given consideration. “We haven’t received an official request yet,” he said. “But we will certainly look at what types of resources we have.”

“I don’t think we will stop at the end of the year,” Vander Ploeg said. “This team has so many people who are deserving of getting that recognition, that I think it’s something we will be fighting for a long time.”

Heffernan said the team has been patient for some time, but that patience is wearing thin. “I don’t know how long we can exist if we don’t get some support,” she said.

“I think we’ve proven that we are willing to go through a great deal in terms of fundraising,” she added, “And we just need some help.”

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