History repeats itself. On Sunday, November 21, the women’s rugby team completed its undefeated season by capturing its second consecutive National Intercollegiate Rugby League (NIRA) Division III championship. In West Point, New York, the Polar Bears defeated the University of New England (UNE) by a score of 31-12. This victory marked the second time since 2019 that the Polar Bears trumped the Nor’easters in a national championship game.
To prepare for the high-stakes game, the team concentrated on developing mental strength and poise by practicing how it would mitigate stress in adverse, unforeseen situations.
“We were practicing what would happen if we experienced bad referee calls or went down a player somehow. We worked through all these situations that could cause a lot of stress,” Molly Petronzio ’22 said. “It’s a national championship, but to us, it should feel like any other game.”
Petronzio, a four-year member of the team, reveled in the feeling of victory and accomplishment following the game, knowing she had dedicated countless hours over the past four years to training and bettering the team.
“[Winning the national championship] this year made everything feel like it has come full circle,” Petronzio said. “Since my first year, I’ve witnessed a lot of positive changes on the team, and knowing that myself and all the other seniors who have been here for a long time have played a part in those changes is a pretty special feeling.”
Head Coach MaryBeth Mathews explained that the team’s physical separation and inability to compete in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic affected its perception of the most recent national championship victory.
“This championship felt different [than the one in 2019] because of the [year off due to COVID-19] in 2020. We had a lot of new people on the team this year who had never played collegiate rugby before. And with all the time off, we wanted [the national championship] so badly,” Mathews said. “Without the opportunity to play in 2020, the players wanted to redo [the 2020 season] so badly, and this was their chance.”
Mathews credited the team’s undefeated season to a similar team-wide desire to fiercely compete once again and seize missed opportunities that were stolen by COVID-19.
“When we were able to bring the entire team together this fall after only having first years on campus in the fall [of 2020] and then upperclassmen in the spring [of 2020], we had this sense of gratitude to be back on campus,” Mathews said. “Everybody thought COVID-19 was miserable, but now I get to play and compete this fall with my friends.’”
Petronzio highlighted that strong bonds between players and a sense of solidarity also played a role in guiding the team to an undefeated season and a national championship.
“You can’t [win a national championship] with just one or two good players that do everything for the team, so on our team, all 15 of us worked together really well and developed team cohesion that we had been working on since preseason,” Petronzio said. “We had this level of trust where we knew each other as players and as people.”
The extraordinary team cohesion that Petronzio highlighted was facilitated by the diligent coaching efforts of Mathews and Assistant Coach James Read dating back to last spring. They encouraged players to step outside of their social comfort zones and seek connections with unfamiliar teammates.
“We knew how important it was for [all the players] to get reconnected after COVID-19. We did a lot of work over Zoom in the spring and over the summer to help the class years get to know each other,” Mathews said. “We also took 5-10 minutes at the beginning or end of every practice for groups of players who didn’t yet know each other very well to answer a series of questions about each other. All through pre-season and even through the fall, we put players who didn’t know each other in spaces together and told them to warm up and train together.”
The preparation came to fruition in competition. This season, the Polar Bears outscored their opponents by an average of nearly 38 points per game. However, despite the disparities between Bowdoin and other Division III women’s rugby programs, it is unlikely that the team will be promoted to Division I or Division II.
“There is not currently a promotion-relegation system in our league right now, so we will probably have to remain in the Division III conference,” Mathews said. “But we hope to schedule more cross-conference games so we can go to Division II and Division I schools and get ourselves a little bit more competition.”