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Top 10: MVP Johnson & Dartmouth’s Ascension

  • 05 Dec 2018
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Dartmouth photos through the years: Diane Ramage

In fall 2015, Oregonian Camille Johnson relocated to the opposite side of the country: Hanover, N.H., home to Dartmouth College. The former soccer and basketball player had planned on joining a club team or trying a new sport in college, but first: cookie dough.

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Johnson was idling in the student center considering dessert options when a set of seniors approached the freshman with a rugby flyer. Dartmouth had christened its first year as a varsity program in fall 2015 but that didn’t mean that on-campus recruitment efforts relented.

“I was confused, and a little scared. It was three seniors saying, ‘Hey, come over here!’ But they were super nice, and it seemed like a good opportunity,” Johnson said of first impressions and walking onto a varsity team. “My mom was less thrilled about it. She thought playing rugby was rough, but the girls were so nice and I was coming from across the country and knew no one.”

The significance of that 2015 season didn’t fully land with the first-year, whose focus centered on learning the game. But looking back, Johnson recalls a team with bubbling with anticipation for how varsity status would affect the program, as well as her “I’m hooked” moment.

“The first home game as a varsity program was against Penn, and we absolutely smashed them,” Johnson said. “I remember sitting on the hill, thinking, ‘I can’t wait to be a part of this.’ There was so much energy.”

Tatjana Toeldte helped stoke that love of the game. Then-senior Toeldte was backs captain and played flyhalf, Johnson’s primary position.

“I really looked up to her. She knew everything there was to know about rugby and was so good to the younger players. She’s so incredibly smart and did a lot off the field also,” Johnson said of the current Beantown player. “I was so surprised and lucky that she took time to teach some poor freshmen so much and make us feel like very valuable members of the team.”

Johnson is equally grateful to Matthew Cameron, a former assistant coach, for a rugby education. Cameron was called upon when current assistant coach Stacey Bridges was called away for USA duties this November, and both he and Toeldte were present for the NIRA national championship for a nice full-circle experience.

As Johnson grew in the game, so did Dartmouth. After getting knocked out of the 2015 and 2016 NIRA post-seasons, Dartmouth advanced to the varsity national championship match in 2017, falling to Quinnipiac 29-22. Meanwhile, the Big Green bagged the ’15, ’16 and ’17 Ivy Championship titles.

“There’s been a huge difference in the level of play. The strategy of what we’re trying to play – it’s totally different even in these past two years,” Johnson reflected on the big changes that head coach Katie Dowty has led. “The quality of player on the team has risen, too. The group we have now is amazing, and we’re so lucky to have them. It’s so much fun playing with that quality of player.”

Dartmouth still incorporates walk-ons like Johnson, but it’s more and more common for freshmen to be experienced rugby players. This year’s back line included three high-profile freshmen in Emily Henrich, Sophie Ragg and Ariana Ramsey, and it was flyhalf Johnson’s job to direct to it all.

“Camille has a brilliant rugby mind and is so passionate about the game,” said Dowty, who shares a start date with Johnson. “She’s a selfless, humble leader and a fierce competitor with so much heart and grit. She has saved more tries than we can count by never giving up on a chase-down and scored countless more by always being ready to make a heads-up play that catches the other team sleeping.”

Johnson stepped up as a co-captain for the 2018 season.

“Walking into this fall season I 100% believed we were going to win the national championship,” Johnson said. “There was no doubt that it was meant to be. There was this feeling that nothing was going to stop us. We had all the pieces we needed, we just needed to put it together.”

The regular season went swimmingly – until the Ivy Championship.

“We stumbled a bit,” Johnson said of the 12-3 loss to Harvard. “We needed a push to look at how we were playing together and how we were playing our game. We wouldn’t have done that if we just kept winning.”

But that loss hurt for four-year seniors like Johnson, whose class was looking to end its Dartmouth career with four-straight Ivy titles.

“It was horrible weather for the Ivy final – sleeting, freezing – and we ended up limiting ourselves. ‘It’s wet, windy, we have to keep it tight and can’t move it far or we’ll knock-on,’” Johnson recalled the mindset. “We didn’t believe in our skills or ourselves to execute our game plan in less than ideal conditions. We missed opportunities, and after that, we sat down and decided not to let anything – the weather, the opponent – limit us, and have faith in ourselves.”

Ivy champion Harvard and Dartmouth advanced to the NIRA national championship in mid-November. The finalists did their homework, watched film, strategized to neutralize each other’s weapons, and readied for a battle.

“It all comes down to execution,” Johnson said. “You can’t pull anything over on each other when you see other three times a season. There are no tricks up the sleeve.”

The final four weekend in Hanover was another brutally cold one, but games relocated to the all-weather facilities and enabled a snow-free final. The only score of the first half came from freshman wing Ramsey, giving Dartmouth a 5-0 lead into halftime.

“Harvard is a really great second-half team. … We wanted to make a statement in the first 15 minutes of the second half and came out really hard,” Johnson said. “That gave us a lot of energy, and we kept hyping each other up, even when mistakes happened. We never got frustrated with each other.”

Two minutes into the second half, Johnson scored a crucial try and added the conversion for a 12-0 lead. Freshman center Henrich posted another try and Johnson’s conversion gave the home side a 19-0 lead. True to Harvard’s grit, the Crimson ended the match with two tries, 19-12 the final.

“[S]he’s a self-motivated student of the game who goes out of her way to keep learning its nuances,” Dowty praised the flyhalf. “We can always rely on her for steadfast game management and decision making. She has been a rock for us and we are so happy to see her passion and hard work culminate with a National Championship and MVP nod.”

“It feels incredible. I’m so proud of this team because we really worked hard to get where we are. We pushed through setbacks, looked at what we could change, and changed them together as a team,” Johnson looked at the season as a whole. “I’m very happy to end with a national championship, but I know this team’s not done with one. Now that we know it’s possible, the team will push even further and won’t let it go.”

The fall 15s season is Dartmouth’s championship season, but the Big Green plays competitive 7s in the spring as well. In other words, there’s still much to achieve this school year, especially for a 7s aficionado like Johnson.

“The care and compassion and drive for one another really makes it a family,” Johnson concluded. “I’m really grateful and lucky that the team found me, and that I randomly joined a group of women I didn’t know.”

Dartmouth NIRA #201819Top10

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