Sports

Duo named in USA Rugby player pool

Okoro ’16, Morgan ’16 look toward 2017 World Cup in Ireland after standout senior seasons

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2016

Uzo Okoro ’16 breaks loose from a Harvard tackler. After her first season playing the sport, she garnered attention from national-level coaches.

Two standout members of the women’s rugby team will have the chance to trade in their Brown jerseys for the red, white and blue.

Uzo Okoro ’16 and Kiki Morgan ’16 were among 49 players named in a recently released list of potential United States National Team members for 2016. The pair will have a chance at spots on the team for the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2017, following a series of camps and international competitions this summer.

The pool of players will remain flexible over the next year as more players make their names known on the national scene. The selection process was recently overhauled to include a wider group of potential members. In the past, prospective players were identified at an annual tournament comprising regional teams from across the country.

USA Rugby introduced National All-Star Competition camps as an alternative to the tournament. The NASC events are typically held twice a year, once in the summer and once over winter break. Okoro will attend a NASC camp in June, and both players will have the chance to compete in the Rugby Super Series later in the summer against Canada, England and France.

Brown Head Coach Kathy Flores is no stranger to the national rugby scene, having both played for and coached the national team in the past. After arriving at Brown in 2013, Flores can now add her mentorship of national-level players at the college level to her lengthy list of accomplishments.

Flores was complimentary of the new system, saying that it gave recognition to worthy players who might be hindered by playing for a less-recognized program.

Though Okoro and Morgan could be teammates for years to come after Brown, the two reached this point from very different paths.

Coming out of Darien, Illinois, Okoro was a track standout in high school. She came to Brown to jump for the women’s track and field team but suffered a serious knee injury in March of her junior year. After struggling through recovery ­— she was unable to walk or to go down stairs — Okoro came to grips with the fact that she might not be able to jump competitively again.

Where does a former triple jumper recovering from a knee injury turn for her senior year?

Rugby, of course.

“Whenever I heard about rugby, I always kind of wanted to join because it seemed like a great team atmosphere,” Okoro said. “I just decided to go for it because I couldn’t jump anymore, and I didn’t just want to be on the sidelines my senior year.”

With a healthy knee and a spot on the field for the defending Ivy League champions, Okoro fit right in. She took her athleticism to the rugby pitch and became one of the most dangerous weapons for the Bears in the fall.

In her lone season, she stood out enough to garner attention from coaches at the national level and now puts no ceiling on her future opportunities. Her original plans included medical school as a member of the Warren Alpert Medical School class of 2020. Now, she is wrestling with the idea of deferring medical school and pursuing rugby professionally, she said.

“It’s still kind of up in the air for me,” Okoro said. “I’m just taking it one step at a time and seeing where it goes.”

A standout athlete in her Pawtucket high school, Morgan joined the rugby team as a first-year, when the program was still a club sport.

She remained a mainstay on the team as the program evolved and gained varsity status for the 2014 season. In its inaugural year, the team won an Ivy League championship, registering a 9-1 record for the regular season followed by a 2-2-1 spring record. This year, the team had another successful campaign, going 5-2 in the regular season, but fell in the Ivy championship game to Dartmouth and in the National Collegiate Varsity Women’s Rugby Association  tournament to American International College. Over her four years, Morgan has developed into a dominant back as well, finding herself on the radar of national team coaches early in her tenure at Brown.

Morgan credited the coaching staff and the additional benefits of the team’s new varsity status as being instrumental for her development.

“The move to varsity has given us access to the training room and great strength and conditioning, which definitely helps at the upper levels,” she said. “In terms of the on-the-field stuff, (Flores) and (Assistant Kerri Heffernan) have been very helpful. They gave me the little skills I need. They pushed me towards something further.”

Okoro and Morgan’s rugby futures hang in the balance, but Flores speculates that the two have a good shot to make the team and represent the United States in Ireland.

“In terms of their talent, I think they’re more than ready for this level of play,” she said. “As much as I’ve coached them, it’s all their raw talent and their commitment to being the best they can be.”

If Flores’ assessment proves correct, the opportunity would be a dream come true for them both.

“I’ve always watched the Olympics and events like that, and it just always seems so far away for me,” Okoro said.  “It would honestly just be an honor that I would never forget.”

Morgan echoed this sentiment. “You watch these events and you never think ‘Oh that could be me,’” she said. “Now we have this opportunity, and it’s ‘That actually could be me.’”

Aside from the Super Series and NASC events, Okoro and Morgan are unsure of their plans for the summer and beyond. Morgan spent the previous summer with a sevens club — a seven-on-seven team —  out of Washington D.C. called Scion, which she plans to continue playing for in the future. Okoro will continue to weigh her medical school plans with the prospects of playing professional rugby. But most of all, the two hope to prove they belong among the 47 other players in the national team pool and that they could be assets to the team in Ireland in 2017.

“What I’m going to do is work hard at rugby and continue to improve and just have fun playing the sport I love,” Morgan said.