Every athlete dreams of winning a national championship, and winning back-to-back titles is a dream only the luckiest of student-athletes can imagine. For the women’s rugby team, that dream is a fast-approaching reality.
The Owls moved one step closer to a possible third straight USA Rugby Division II National Championship with a 76-0 win over Richmond on Saturday. Junior Shannon Murphy paced the Owls with five tries in the Mid-Atlantic Rugby Football Union quarterfinal.
Murphy’s five scores were part of what coach Lisa Rosen called the team’s strongest performance of the year. All three seniors tallied points in their final and only home game of the season.
The team’s dominance in the quarterfinal was the product of hard work and a very tough region, Rosen said. The Eastern Pennsylvania Rugby Football Union, the team’s local affiliation, is one of the toughest regions in the MARFU.
“We’ve played pretty strong all year,” Rosen said. “The local area has some of the toughest competition around.”
The Owls controlled the pace of the game from the opening kickoff. The team’s first push into Richmond territory was a gritty one. Captain Vanesha McGee sped down the line after a series of passes along the team’s back line for the Owls’ first score. Junior Emily Tunney converted the kick after to give the Owls an 8-0 lead.
Tunney’s subsequent kickoff put the Spiders in the shadow of their own goal line. The stagnant possession may have been the Spiders’ strongest attempt of the game. After the Owls pinned Richmond deep in its own zone, McGee passed the ball to Murphy, who sprinted to the end zone for the first of her five scores.
The ball never left Richmond’s end for the rest of the game.
With the first round behind them, the two-time defending champs play Maryland next week in Princeton, N.J. After that, the team’s future is up in the air. Sitting atop Division II for the last two years, the Owls said they will use the off-season to decide if the team should move up to Division I.
Much of the Owls’ decision will depend on whether they advance to the final this weekend.
“It’s very challenging to play in Division I,” Rosen said. “We’re going to have to work really hard. I told the girls we’re not going to win every weekend if we do.”
Playing in Division I doesn’t guarantee the Owls varsity status. There are only 10 schools in the United States that recognize women’s rugby as a full varsity sport. Rosen said the University stands to benefit from adding the rugby team to its varsity lineup.
“Varsity status helps the university in several ways,” Rosen said. “It gives them flexibility with Title IX, with more women’s scholarships. And it gives the girls full access to weight rooms and facilities.”
But with varsity status comes varsity-like responsibility, according to Rosen. With their current club status, the rugby team has the support of the club sports office and plenty of freedom.
“Rugby is still a social sport. It creates individual leaders,” Rosen said. “[Going varsity would be] a double-bladed sword.”
Christopher Reber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.