Queens vs. Elon / action photos courtesy of Queens Women’s Rugby
The DII college Carolinas conference ballooned to 11 teams last year, but the enthusiasm for those numbers waned when a longer, split season saw shrinking rosters, inconsistent competition and frustration. The smaller, younger programs were at greatest risk of losing momentum, but a collaborative effort between administrators and proactive students built an alternative in the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO), and the hope is for a ripple of growth in other areas of the game.
Katie Wurst, Director of Rugby at Queens University of Charlotte, and the Royals competed in the DII Carolinas last season and experienced its own first-year trials, while witnessing the struggles of conference mates. Wurst had seen how other conferences, like the Allegheny, adjusted their structure to provide healthy, growth-oriented competition to a spectrum of members. When the coach looked into NSCRO options, Wurst connected with eligible teams and discovered they had already considered the league.
Lander University, ball carrier
Lander University (approx. 2,700 undergrads), for example, formed a women’s team four years ago and played friendlies until the 2017-18 season, when it joined the DII Carolinas conference.
“We wanted to be a part of NSCRO from the start, but with the closest schools being Lee in Tennessee and Eckerd in Florida, it didn’t seem like a best fit for us as far as forming a league,” Lander president Nikki Bradley explained.
Wurst talked with NSCRO women’s commissioner Bryn Chivers, Carolinas conference commissioner Amy George, and outgoing Carolinas GU president Simone Bontly, and saw a good opportunity to support schools like Lander, Elon and The Citadel, while also creating an entry point for potential new and returning teams.
Lander during 7s season
“Often people don’t know as much about NSCRO. They offer flexibility, and the South has so much potential for growth,” Wurst said. “Teams like Wake Forest and Guilford used to feature competitive rugby, and there is a need for opportunities that allow teams to grow, or return to full strength. And then there are teams like North Carolina A&T that just came out of the blue! They have a full roster of student-athletes training, and are looking forward to playing matches to get their feet underneath them.”
The women’s team at North Carolina A&T (NCAT) begins with Ashleigh Robertson, who started the team from scratch, and worked alongside men’s team founder Rashad Lipford. She employed Twitter to gauge on-campus interest for rugby, and the substantial response encouraged her to move forward and get a team on the pitch.
Ashleigh Robertson with UNC Charlotte
“For the women’s team, I am the only one who has ever played. However, this is my first time leading a team so it’ll be a learning experience for the players and myself,” explained Robertson, who will serve as player-coach in the team’s first season. “I knew we wouldn’t be ready to compete in any conference … [so] I thought I’d pack our semester with interest games, and friendly scrimmages against local schools in the south. But with this new [NSCRO conference], we have the opportunity to not only perform, but to learn in a healthy environment. I’m grateful NSCRO offers this type of home for new teams.”
So the new Carolinas NSCRO conference will be a veritable league for small schools Elon, Lander and The Citadel, and these three teams will be eligible for the post-season (and play Lee University for a berth to the regional playoffs). First-year NCAT will also compete as a provisional member, the hope being that a year of competition will ready it for DII competition next season. And Queens’ second team, an unexpected evolution after a stellar recruitment season, will also participate, and provide meaningful competition for this growing program. All NSCRO-eligible teams will play each other once, whether it is in the form of 7s, 10s or 15s.
Lander with the inside-out kit during 7s
“The deciding factor for us was the option to play no matter the size of our team,” Bradley added. “Last year a lot of our games were canceled due to not having a full team, causing our athletes to get frustrated with practicing, but not being able to compete. This conference allows us to play, which we believe will improve our numbers.”
A lighter schedule means available weekends to schedule tournaments, team-bonding and recruitment outings, player clinics, and the opportunity to grow at the pace teams want and need.
Queens vs. Elon
Wurst also sees how this NSCRO conference could benefit the women’s rugby NCAA movement. Take the South Atlantic Conference (SAC), the NCAA Division II competition in which Queens and 11 other small-enrollment schools compete. None of them have a women’s rugby club or varsity program – save Queens, which has been fortunate to have Wurst to guide the new team through a DII season, now into DI, and hopefully the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association along with other new programs. Now when inquiries are made about adding rugby, Wurst can point to the NSCRO Carolinas conference and say, “Here’s a simple solution: There’s a conference designed for small schools, and it allows you to get started with support from those who know what it is like to make it happen.”
To boot, Wurst is serving as conference commissioner, but is happy to hand it over when someone is ready to step in.
“Not only has NSCRO given us a place to play, the leadership is phenomenal and gives me confidence,” Robertson effused. “Katie Wurst in particular has been incredible to us. She is the most resourceful, well connected and well versed director! I can’t thank her enough. It’s no wonder they would have someone like her involved in a project like this important initiative.”