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First-ever NCAA women's rugby match increases sport's exposure

CHARLESTON, Ill. -- Jamaris DelValle had never heard of rugby before she started playing three years ago in Jupiter, Fla.

Like most Americans, the teen knew little about the sport's rules, traditions or strategies. Still, she was drawn to a sport where she has the opportunity to hit someone in a game, just like the boys do over on the football field.

DelValle quickly fell in love with the game. She is working hard, hoping her efforts will result in a scholarship to play rugby at the collegiate level, something Saturday's game between West Chester (Penn.) University and Eastern Illinois University may remedy -- or so organizers hope.

For the record, West Chester defeated Eastern Illinois on Saturday afternoon, scoring a try in the final minutes to win 20-19 in the first-ever NCAA women's rugby game, which was held at Eastern Illinois. The final score, though, is inconsequential to those who helped organize the game. Instead, coaches and administrators are more interested in convincing athletic directors that rugby can be a success at the NCAA level.

"This game was about exposure, getting people in the stands watching," said Becky Carlson, the NCAA's emerging sports program manager for USA Rugby. "This game gives some evidence that the sport is growing. History is being made, and it's a nice element to have the ball signed and sent to the NCAA Hall of Champions, but this game is really about exposure. Without this game, you just have club teams competing out there."

Women's rugby is one of seven sports on the NCAA's list of emerging sports, a program created in the early 1990s to increase the number of athletic opportunities for young women. Like the other sports on the current list, rugby must attract 40 teams within 10 years to earn championship status or be dropped from consideration. Right now, only four women's teams in the nation play varsity rugby with four years remaining. Maine's Bowdoin College and Southern Vermont, both Division III programs, are the other two teams recognized by the NCAA.

Thousands of women play rugby for the more than 300 college club programs across the country, something that could help elevate the sport. Plus, more young women like DelValle are learning about the sport at the high school level.

That impresses Karen Morrison, the NCAA's director of gender initiatives, who attended Saturday's historic game. Morrison, a former administrator and women's basketball coach at the University of Colorado, says the NCAA would consider extending the deadline for rugby if some progress is made during the next several years.

"I certainly think rugby has a chance because they have a national governing body [USA Rugby] that is committed to creating collegiate programs," Morrison said. "That's a big help. I think they also have such a long-standing tradition in the clubs and intramurals system that schools are looking to add opportunities for women. They can find teams on a lot of these campuses. I think it definitely has a chance."

Like most schools, West Chester and Eastern Illinois added women's rugby to comply with Title IX, a statute enacted more than 30 years ago to promote gender equity on and off the playing fields. The 40-plus players on the Golden Rams' roster go a long way to balancing the number of female athletes against larger male sports teams like football. Fourteen of West Chester's 24 sports are fielded for women.

"If for no other reason -- and this shouldn't be the reason -- I think administrators need to look at it to get in compliance with Title IX," said West Chester athletic director Ed Matejkovic. "Why wouldn't anybody want to add this sport? It's not any different from soccer or field hockey. Why wouldn't you want to add a sport like this? A number of women can participate. It's a great sport, a sport where you don't have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on."

So far, no schools in the Ohio Valley Conference, where Eastern competes, have indicated they are interested in adding the sport, although EIU's interim athletic director, Ken Baker, believes more schools should consider doing so. "Women's rugby is a very good sport from a gender equity perspective to complement men's football," he said.

Matejkovic says four schools in their conference, the Division II Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, are looking to add rugby. He plans to push for women's rugby in the next conference meeting.

"There will be a discussion because people will see the coverage that this game has received," Matejkovic said. "Maybe, they will realize this is a viable thing. Just like anything, people are afraid of change and doing something new. I think you just have to punch in and do it. Next year when we play EIU at our place, I'll invite the ADs in our conference and say, 'Come see a game. You'll enjoy it every bit as much as field hockey and soccer -- maybe more so, in some cases."

Still, the sport has its detractors, many of whom worry the NCAA will destroy the culture of the sport. EIU coach Frank Graziano has been a primary target of the criticism, mostly because he prefers to recruit athletes from other sports, like track and soccer, and because he has tried to change some rules that would limit the number of games a team can play in a week to one, which eliminates traditional tournaments where players compete in two or three games during a weekend.

Last season, West Chester coach Tony DeRemer had to cancel a game late in the season when he learned about the NCAA rule. But that's something he is willing endure to gain access to medical support, charter buses for games, and all expenses paid. No longer do players have to tape one another's ankles on the field, cram nine people in a hotel room, jam seven into a car for a six-hour road trip, and spend $600 to $1,000 for expenses related to travel, fees and uniforms.

Club teams also hold socials after games, where teams gather with opposing players to eat, and, sometimes, to drink. That potential change has some players and coaches riled -- even relatively new players in high school.

"The whole idea of playing rugby in England and overseas is to meet people," said Whitney Bowman, a high school senior who competes for a club team from Noblesville, Ind. "In professional rugby, you go out after a game and drink. After a high school game, we have a social with food. I know kids all over Indiana and Tennessee, and now I know kids in Florida who play. If we give that up, we'd be like every other sport. To be honest, I would not want it to go NCAA. Rugby has its own circle of tournaments to go to. The NCAA to me is just a title."

But players like West Chester's Katy Black are not so convinced. Black, who scored twice Saturday against Eastern Illinois, said she heard some of these concerns last summer when she competed for the national U-23 women's team. But she says the perks are well worth the changes.

"I have no problem not partying with another team," Black said. "Chances are if I'd want to kill you on the field, I'd want to do that off the field. But I've never really been in that social aspect where I'd hit you on the field but want to socialize with you off the field. So I'm okay with having a war and then going home with my team."

"I would hope that teams would want to be sponsored by the NCAA because there are a lot of good female teams playing rugby -- and you don't hear about them, you don't know about them. They're club. If you don't check USA Rugby's Web site, you'd miss it. And it's really good stuff. It would really be cool if we became more popular. If we had an NCAA championship, that would be wild."

Eastern's Molly Clutter, a junior back who also scored twice Saturday, says she had started to question whether rugby would get a chance to advance to an NCAA sport. Like some of her teammates, she is frustrated that no other teams have jumped aboard the past few years. "I don't understand why anyone wouldn't want to join and be a part of history. It makes me sad. Sometimes, I feel like we're doing this for nothing, but this game definitely proves we are not doing this for nothing."

If nothing else, the game inspired the more than 1,200 fans who watched West Chester and Eastern Illinois play a tight, exciting game filled with several lead changes. That was worth the 2,000-plus mile round trip from southeastern Florida, said Sean Simon, coach of a girls' team in Jupiter.

"Rugby is not mainstream in Florida," said Simon, a former rugby coach at Clemson who now teaches social studies at his alma mater, Jupiter High School. His team includes players from two schools and at least one home schooler. "We just started the league a few years ago. My team is only a year old. There are only three teams at the high school level in Florida. It's tough to keep up the enthusiasm. Parents are wondering why we're still playing it. But colleges are going to be giving scholarships and financing it. That's why I came on this trip, so I can keep up the enthusiasm and keep up the momentum in Florida at not only my high school but at other high schools. … But without a place to go and play after high school, there will be no incentive to play high school ball."

And that would sadden girls like Leslie Cleaver, a junior flyhalf for Jupiter's squad. "I would love to play for a college team," she said. "Just looking at them [EIU and West Chester], they look like they're having such a great time. I'm really hoping it goes NCAA. It will give us an opportunity. We'll have a chance to grow and play at college."

Joe Gisondi, who teaches journalism at Eastern Illinois University, writes about sports reporting at onsportz.blogspot.com.