Ja’Kenya Clancy vs. West Virginia / Photo: Greg Brooks / 3State Rugby
When Youngstown State was ready to launch a women’s rugby team, it first consulted the nearby Steel Valley women’s club. Then-president and captain Renee Whittenberger got the collegiate program moving and then connected with Jeff Horton, who was departing from DI Kent State and looking for another program with a supportive, growth-oriented mindset. Horton and Youngstown State, it was a good partnership, and the coach got to work in May 2017.
The early goings were focused on building on-campus interest and internal organization. The Ohio school then considered its competitive options and aligned with the Allegheny conference for fall 2017.
“Allegheny has been awesome in what they’ve let us do while we got our feet under us,” Horton reflected on the team’s first fall. “We joined as an official member of the hybrid league, but as a developing program, we didn’t have the strongest numbers. So we put together a developmental schedule and played four NSCRO teams. It was a great opportunity for players to get their feet wet.”
After that fall 15s season, Youngstown State used the spring to regroup a bit. Recruitment became a big focus, as did skill development. While Horton scoured the region for up-and-coming talent, he wanted the current players to be at the same level as the newcomers with years of rugby experience.
“At the beginning of the year when we started talking about recruiting, we decided to focus on growing the hometown community,” Horton said. “Within a three-hour radius of the city, we have a strong recruiting base with Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo. There’s a lot of rugby in those areas. We also reached out to kids in Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky.”
Brunswick and Hudson from Ohio, Moon Area in Pennsylvania and New York’s Orchard Park were among the high school teams that sent talent to the Penguins. Each year, the team is allotted 10 recruiting spots and players can receive up to $2,000 for housing costs. That offer is good for two years. In addition to financial draws, the support staff has good access resources during practices, use of multiple varsity facilities, an assigned S&C coordinator, and more benefits.
“The biggest things we tell recruits is that we know it’s a risk to invest in a program getting its feet off the ground, but we have a dedicated staff and the university supports our goals,” Horton said. “We’re looking to strengthen the rugby community in the area and build up the sport in the greater area. If a player wants to come in and do something unique, then come make history in northeast Ohio.”
Photo: YSU Women’s Rugby
Today, Youngstown State is a fully participating member of the DII Allegheny and contested its first official, regular-season 15s match against West Virginia last weekend. The Penguins won 51-19.
“All things considered, I was pleased with the effort put forth by our team against West Virginia. It took a little bit of time for us to get going, but once we settled down and started to play our brand of rugby, the team really came together and played with great continuity,” Horton assessed.
“One of our biggest messages to the team has been adaptability and overcoming obstacles,” the coach continued. “Having to play without our starting inside center, Samantha Bautz, due to an injury sustained in warm-ups, really put that message to the test. The injury allowed for Sebreena Alai to step onto the rugby pitch for the first time ever, and she did an outstanding job, displaying a high-rate of tackle efficiency.”
Angelique Williams / Photo: Greg Brooks / 3State Rugby
Outside center Angelique Williams led with three tries and also impressed on defense, using a high work rate to force key turnovers during crucial moments in the match. Ja’Kenya Clancy and Hannah Hall scored two tries apiece, while Ash Hawryluk and Carly Weiss added one each. Vice captain Courtney Elliott handled the kicking duties.
“West Virginia is an extremely physical team, and thanks to strong performances by Ja’Kenya Clancy, Courtney Elliott and captain Laelae Amituanai, we were able to neutralize the aggressiveness the Mountaineers were bringing to the match on both sides of the ball,” Horton praised. “While this win certainly helped build our team’s confidence, the players are hungry to keep building on the foundation that has been set and ultimately get better every day.”
Next up is Slippery Rock, which lost its opener 50-12 to DI Kent State two weekends ago. All Allegheny teams play each other once in the regular season, and the Penguins also have a friendly against Davenport penciled in. The conference will then host semifinals and a championship by Nov. 3 before entering USA Rugby’s DII Fall Championship Round of 32 on Nov. 10.