Since 2003, the Bowdoin women’s rugby team has led the way as the oldest collegiate varsity women’s rugby program in the nation and as a consistently strong contender in the league, meanwhile never losing touch with its club roots and embracing the inclusive nature of the sport.
When the opportunity to promote Bowdoin’s team from the club to varsity level presented itself, there was only one other varsity rugby program in the country. Head Coach MaryBeth Mathews describes her reaction as surprised, excited and open to the possibilities.
“The athletic director approached me and said, ‘We’d like to elevate women’s rugby to varsity status’,” said Mathews. “He said, ‘This sport deserves to be elevated. It deserves the respect and support of a school like Bowdoin because this sport and your team, in particular, promote all the values and then some that we want young women to achieve,’ and I was blown away by that.”
While at first the idea of elevating the team to varsity was met with mixed reviews, given its nine-year history as a club sport, ultimately Mathews and the team wanted the respect from the College that comes from the varsity status, and they understood that this change wouldn’t compromise team culture.
“It’s a no-cut sport, we recruit from the student body and all experience levels and body shapes and sizes are welcome and needed for the team,” said Mathews. “So none of that had to change. Just what changed was the support and the respect for the program.”
While the program differs from most other collegiate varsity programs in these ways, the members’ drive to win and excel has made it one of Bowdoin’s most successful teams. In the past 14 seasons, Mathews has led the team to a record of 111-39-1, for an astounding winning percentage of 73.4. In addition, the Polar Bears frequently qualify for postseason play, have produced seven All-American players and earned a host of other titles and accolades.
“As we’re playing our 15th season, I think about how far the team has come and the culture that we’ve built and how we’ve really been able to meld the club history with the intensity of being a varsity sport. I’m thinking a lot about the captains and players who came before me who helped create that culture and have given the team the winning record and body positive, happy, healthy culture it has,” said captain Kendall Schutzer ’18. “We’re the oldest varsity team in the country, so that’s very cool. It means that we’re setting the bar within our conference and overall.”
The Polar Bears enter their 15th varsity season this weekend, now accompanied by a number of other varsity teams that compose the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA) all-varsity conference and have their sights set on bringing home the championship title for the second consecutive year.
“Our goal is the same as always: It’s to go as far as we can on the track we’re on,” said Schutzer. “This year that’s the NIRA Tier 2 championship, and we’re hoping to win it. We did last year and round two would be good.”
As the team heads into its first match of the season this weekend, the expectations are to continue the trends of growth, improvement and high quality performance that the team has maintained since its inception.
“We’re always not just hoping for a win, but preparing for one and giving ourselves the best chances for that,” said Schutzer. “But at the end of the day, we’re all growing and learning and even for the most experienced players on the field, we’re learning, it’s still new to many of us.”
According to Mathews, the team focuses a lot on using every opportunity as a learning opportunity, especially because most players have no experience with the sport before coming to Bowdoin. While that is a large component of the team’s unique culture, a lack of rugby knowledge nationwide is an obstacle the team continues to have to overcome.
“We’ve definitely felt an increasing amount of attention and support [since becoming varsity]. It’s been a slow curve because rugby’s not an American sport, and that’s frustrating because the people on this team work just as hard,” said Mathews. “The increasing amount of rugby being on television and it being in the Olympics has been great for people to understand, but there’s an ignorance around the sport in this country, and that certainly exists here at Bowdoin.”
Hopefully the team’s dominance on the pitch will continue to grow the sport’s prevalence on campus as the Polar Bears face-off against UMaine-Orono tomorrow at 1 p.m. at Pickard Field.