It’s halfway through the DII New England season, and Worcester is one of two 4-0 teams (alongside Burlington). But the Shamrocks know better than to be overconfident in this league – a lesson learned the hard way – as there’s still so much rugby to be played and excellent competition awaiting.
“We’ve had our hearts broken,” Worcester head coach Tran Nguyen said. “There have been seasons where we’ve gone in super strong, thinking, ‘This is our year,’ and that definitely did not happen. Other years we’ve gone in thinking, ‘We have low numbers; this is going to be tough,’ and then three [new] girls a week will come to practice. … I cannot predict the season at all.”
And that’s coming after 10 years’ worth of experience with Worcester. Nguyen started playing for the team in 2009 until an ACL injury in 2013 necessitated a break. At the same time, the team realized it had to make some positive changes, as numbers were low and the captain-coaches were being unduly pushed. Worcester asked Nguyen to step into the head coaching position. Enter hook.
“But I knew it was a good fit because I like watching rugby,” Nguyen reflected on the struggles of quickly switching from player to coach. “I like watching the team play and improve. There were moments when I wanted to be out there, but it was really satisfying to coach as well, because you’re still part of rugby and rugby culture. … I’m grateful for the opportunity they’ve given me. They took a giant leap in having someone who never coached before.”
An invested, long-term coach is crucial for any team’s success, but Nguyen is quick to share accolades. The coach effused with gratitude when acknowledging Joey Sanchez and Sean Hillier, who mentored Nguyen and continue to do, finding ways to foster continual dialogue through critical questioning. And then two years ago, Sarah Griffith (“Griff”) transitioned from influential player to co-coach, making for an impactful duo.
But ultimately, it all comes down to what the players do. Their buy-in and effort direct the team’s trajectory.
“Momentum changed on the Shamrocks with Sarah Ludy,” Nguyen recalled the arrival of an enthusiastic and passionate force. “When she joined, it was love at first sight. She brought focus, determination and this cool energy that set the tone.
“The core has been with the Shamrocks for so long,” Nguyen paid special praise to former president and scrumhalf Bridget Simmons and current president Sara Sermuksnis. “I played with a lot of the girls on the team but it’s incredible how they’ve grown since I started. I remember Shamrock having seven girls at practice and scrounging for players to fill a side. It had been difficult.”
Today, captains Laura Hetherman and Katie Stocking are out in front, serving as examples, and the team’s fallen in behind them. The four league wins have ranged from blowouts (against Upper Valley and Amoskeag), to nailbiters: 19-14 vs. Hartford and 31-24 vs. Portland last weekend.
“Griff and I, we believe in our girls. We know what they’re capable of. I know there is a ton of talent but that’s all up to them and how they want to play and what they want to see out,” Nguyen said. “We’re in the middle of our season; we just need to stay focused. The competition is going to fierce until the end of the season, so we just have to improve with every training, every game and make corrections as needed.”
At the very end of the eight-game regular season are two of the #2 and #3 teams in the standings right now, Burlington and Providence, respectively.
“It’s not going to be boring,” Nguyen said.
Although Nguyen wasn’t eager to plan beyond the next game, the coach did indicate that a successful season will be marked by high retention, few injuries and players learning. The roots for that success have been put into motion years ago, and now it’s about staying focused to finish out the season as strongly as it began.