After two seasons as a varsity team, the women’s rugby team has become a powerhouse in the still-growing landscape of collegiate rugby in the United States. With a combined record of 17-6-1 over two years and an Ivy League title in 2014, it is hard to deny the impressive resume of the varsity team, still in its infancy.
But the team was given an elevated challenge over spring break, as it ventured overseas to face national squads from Switzerland and the Czech Republic.
Head Coach Kathy Flores, a recent inductee to the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame, had been planning a European tour for the team and had settled on the idea that the team would travel to Scotland. But Flores came across an even better opportunity, thanks to a connection from her playing days at Florida State. A former teammate, Dana Teagarden, once worked as an international referee and mentioned her connections to the national teams in Switzerland and the Czech Republic to Flores.
“It took off from there,” Flores said.
“This was an incredible experience — one that not many college teams, nor women’s rugby teams, have the opportunity to do,” said co-captain Oksana Goretaya ’17.
The experience was indeed rare even for a top program, as Penn State, a perennial juggernaut in women’s collegiate rugby, took a European tour this year to Italy but played against only club teams without access to any national teams.
The squad arrived in Zurich, Switzerland March 26, two days before its first match with the Swiss national team. In an attempt to combat jet lag, Flores put the team through a 90-minute practice immediately after its arrival at the hotel.
“We had to try to get on that time zone as fast as possible,” Flores said. The players “did well to adjust.”
After taking a day to explore Zurich, the Bears bussed out of the city toward the Alps, where they would face off against the Swiss on a field at the foothills of the snow-capped mountains.
Bruno was led offensively by its two most dangerous players from the fall season, Uzoamaka Okoro ’16 and Kiki Morgan ’16. Both were recently named among a pool of players in consideration for the U.S. National Team competing in the 2017 World Cup in Ireland. Against the Swiss, both proved that they are ready for national competition.
After an early try by the hosts, Okoro converted a pair of tries to give Bruno a 10-8 lead at the half. Morgan increased Brown’s lead to 15-8 early in the second with a try of her own, but the Swiss countered with a try and conversion kick to tie the match once again. A late Swiss try gave the home team a 20-15 lead, which is where the game ended.
“The Swiss game was definitely a disappointment,” said Joanna Chatham ’17. “We were ahead at the half and outplaying them in our forwards and backs.”
But the team had little time to dwell on the loss, as it faced a 426-mile overnight bus ride to Prague.
After another off day, Bruno took the field against the Czechs, who took a 12-0 lead into halftime. The second of the two first-half tries came on a controversial penalty try that would end up making the difference in the game. The referee called the penalty against Morgan for wrapping up the Czech player above her shoulders, much to the Bears’ disappointment.
“That was just a mistake by the ref, and it was a very blatant mistake,” Goretaya said.
With the successful try and kick, the call represented a seven-point swing for the Czechs.
Brown mounted a comeback in the second half, pulling within seven points after a try from Okoro. The teams traded tries at the end of the match, Brown’s coming once again for Okoro, but the Bears fell short, as the match ended 17-12.
The following day, the team played its third match in four days, defeating the Czech B-team 42-0. All 26 players who made the trip saw time on the field during the match.
Despite the two disappointing losses, there were plenty of positives to be taken away from the team’s tour.
“We feel like we fared well against both teams, and I felt like the players got an immense amount of experience, particularly some of our younger players,” said Flores.
“Mentally, saying we are playing national teams, that’s kind of scary,” said Nikkolette Lee ’18. “We held our own. A lot of people learned that they had a lot more in them than they thought.”
The team’s performance came in spite of the whirlwind of international travel and the physical strain of playing three matches in four days, as opposed to the one 80-minute match a week the team takes on during its season. The outcome of the games may have been different if the team had had more time to rest in between travel and matches, Flores said.
“This trip kind of showed us what we were capable of,” Goretaya said. “It made people push themselves past their limits.”
In facing the national teams, the Bears were exposed to a whole new level of competition and were forced to make adjustments on the fly against more experienced players.
“It brought up our level of play a lot compared to playing teams like Dartmouth or Harvard,” Chatham said. “You find yourself thinking two or three phases ahead a lot more.”
Whereas college teams “clump a lot more because they’re not really thinking about the next move,” the national teams stretched Brown’s team from “sideline to sideline,” Goretaya said. “It was really a humbling experience, and we’ll have lifetime memories,” she added.
The team opens its spring season this weekend with its home tournament. The spring season is played 7-on-7, as opposed to the 15-player version played in the fall. The Bears will welcome some of the top teams in the country: Dartmouth, American International, Army, Norwich, Quinnipiac and West Chester. After losing back-to-back games to end the season in the Ivy tournament and the quarterfinals of the National Collegiate Women’s Varsity Rugby Association tournament, the European tour has served as a reset for the team as it moves into the spring season.
“We had kind of a disappointing end to our 15s season in the fall,” Chatham said. “This tour totally reignited the fire and got people excited about moving forward.”