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Over the last couple of years, the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) women’s 7’s select side, powered by Penn Mutual, has been competing in the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship (CRC) and the Las Vegas Invitational (LVI). Made of up some of the top players across NSCRO, the team has been getting better and forming a close knit community despite only being with each other a few times a year.
The players are selected based on their performance throughout the year with their respective college programs. The coaching staff uses the national championships to scout players but also finds players from universities that are not competing on the national stage. College coaches have the ability to nominate players from their programs to ensure that the Selects do not miss out on hidden talent.
“The goal is to provide opportunity for all players regardless of the success of their team. We know that there are many exceptional players on teams that are not competitive at the local, regional, or national level, so we need a flexible open pathway with as many entry points as possible,” said NSCRO Selects coach Bryn Chivers.
Colgate University of New York, Regis University of Colorado, LeTourneau University of Texas, Lee University of Tennessee, and The Claremont Colleges of California, are just a few of the small colleges that provide athletes. The geographical divide makes it impossible for the women to meet each other beforehand let alone practice together.
The team had only a couple of practices the day before its first tournament together, the 2016 CRC, and despite early struggles with the transition to a higher level of rugby, they reached the quarterfinals, where they lost by one score to eventual finalists Lindenwood.
“We had challenges at the CRC in 2016. Bringing everyone together was very difficult at first,” said team captain Mary Kate McNulty of Dennison University in Ohio. “We were learning how to play with each other in a competitive environment and it was a challenge.”
The role of the team captain is incredibly important for a team that has limited time together. For the NSCRO Selects, the team captain forms the link between coaches and players.
“We have to build trust between the coaches and players in a very short timeframe and key to this is the role of the captain. The captain sits in coaches meetings and becomes a conduit for information to pass between coaches and players,” Chivers indicated.
Hoping to improve the team dynamic, McNulty connected with every player prior to the team’s second tournament together, the 2017 Las Vegas Invitational, to further bridge the link between player and coach. Most of the players were returning from last year but the team added some new faces as well.
“I sent out emails to let the new players know who I was. I started a group message so everyone would get to know each other and build team chemistry prior to the tournament.” Said McNulty.
The hard work paid off as the NSCRO Selects went undefeated in pool play at the LVI. After winning a quarterfinal matchup, the Selects lost to the eventual champions, the University of British Columbia, in the semifinals.
Believing heavily in a concept they call “pride in the jersey,” the team has come together as a cohesive unit. “We will have players bring a shirt from their own team and have them swap it for their new team gear (we give the shirts back at the end of the assembly), with the idea that they transition from belonging to twelve different teams to one single team,” Chivers said of facilitating team building.
The players have bought into the “pride in the jersey’’ concept, and as members of an exclusive group they know what they represent when they put on the NSCRO Select Side jersey.
“The players not only represent NSCRO, Penn Mutual and their own teams, but they represent the thousands of women who play on small college teams and who would like the opportunity to be on the select side. Players play to a higher standard when they know they represent more than just themselves,” said Chivers.
The team philosophy and pride in representing NSCRO has transcended rugby into everyday life. The camaraderie built from late night group chats discussing rugby and life has built strong relationships.
“The group chat we started after the first tournament has turned into constant messaging. We are committed to keeping it going and staying in touch despite only seeing each other a couple of times a year,” said Mount St.Mary’s standout Nikki Ciccarelli.
Although the players are happy with the success on the field, many of them have found that the most rewarding part has been the newfound friendships. Friendships, which they would not have had without being a part of the NSCRO Selects side.
“We all come from small schools so being able to play with talented women across the country is a very unique and rewarding experience,” said Ciccarelli.
“These are connections with people I will never forget. These girls are going to be some of the best friends I will ever have because I can trust them,” said Kelcey Stutzman of Wayne State in Nebraska.
Although these players will eventually move on from the NSCRO Selects, the relationships these women have built will last far beyond the time they spent together on the pitch.