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Bowdoin Named NIRA’s 1st DIII National Champion

  • 20 Nov 2019
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Photo: Brian Beard/CIPhotography.com

The National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA) held its fifth national championship, but 2019 marked the first year in which three titles were awarded. Previously, only Tier I had the honor of being named “national champion,” but this season the NCAA varsity league hosted official Tier 2 and Division III finals to accommodate the expanding field.

Bowdoin College is the oldest women’s varsity rugby program in the country and became the first DIII national champion after a 27-5 win over the University of New England (UNE) Sunday. But the path to the podium was a trying one, as the year began on a disappointing note. Bowdoin was only able to recruit one player this fall, as other potential student-athletes weren’t able to meet the school’s academic requirements, and one early commit who received a lot of support went elsewhere. Those shortfalls were exacerbated by another personnel tension that required the team to regroup early on.


Photo: Brian Beard/CIPhotography.com

“We had the numbers,” Bowdoin head coach MaryBeth Mathews said. “But if you asked me on August 30 whether we had a true A side? Then, no, that was not the case. We had 15 players who could start.”

Fortunately those numbers included dedicated, quick studies. Last year saw a large number of freshmen walk-ons who learned the game during B side matches in fall 2018. They put in the work through the spring, committed to their strength-and-conditioning, and then stepped into opportunities when this year’s recruitment class fell short. By national championship time, Bowdoin’s back line was all sophomores and one freshman.

The season kicked off against Colby-Sawyer College, a team that finished the regular season undefeated and ended with a one-point lost to UNE in the semifinals. On this day, the Chargers Beat Bowdoin 38-8.

“They were better than us on the day, and we made mistakes,” Mathews said. “They have some terrific players – their No. 8, Bailey Burt, who came to [Polar Bear Rugby Camp], and their 13, Jordyn Enos.”


Photo: Brian Beard/CIPhotography.com

“They’re young so they’re always going to make mistakes, and we encourage that as long as you learn from them,” Mathews considered the team’s growth cycle. “When we beat Norwich [27-17] in the regular season, that was when they were playing their best rugby. This team gets better every week because our coaching philosophy is about setting small, incremental goals – individually and as a team – and working toward them every week. Don’t worry about the wins and post-season; just do the basics. From that point on, we played well enough to win.”

Captain Claire Carges is the core leader and an inspiration. The lock was a walk-on freshman year and then tore both ACLs to miss two entire seasons. She gleaned as much information as she could while rehabbing on the sidelines, and has developed into the team’s main voice. Beside her is fellow lock Ashlynn Autrey, a basketball crossover from the West Coast who is already a big contributor as a sophomore.

“We have tons of speed on the wing: Sophia Karris, Molly Petronzio, Ella Garnett, Kendra Clifton,” Mathews looked at the backs. “Those four I credit with speed but it really, honest to goodness, is our 9-10 combination, Sara Nelson and Catherine Patti [that make it all happen]. Neither of them have played those positions until this year and I could probably count on one hand how many drops she had all season. They’re our ‘steady Eddies.’ They’re the glue to the team. The wings don’t get the ball if they can’t catch and move it; the forward attack strategy doesn’t work if they can’t handle the ball and read the situation.”


Photo: Brian Beard/CIPhotography.com

Bowdoin got a little extra field time by working in friendlies with Roger Williams, Colby College and Vassar College. The Brewers, like Norwich, are an old rival from the NERFU / Met New York days, and that close loss (32-24) helped sharpen the Polar Bears for the semifinals – against Norwich. Another brutally tough game evolved but Bowdoin managed the go-ahead try in the second half for the 12-7 win.

“I’m not surprised at all. They’re great kids,” Mathews said of the team’s ability to thrive after a less than ideal start. “The recruits have experience so they understand the physicality of the game and decision-making and field play better. But the walk-ons bring this ‘Oh my gosh, this is so much fun to play’ to the game. It’s a good mix.”

UNE upset Colby-Sawyer in the other semifinal, setting up an all-Maine final with Bowdoin. These teams contested the earliest of the NIRA Tier 2 finals and exchanged titles, but this year felt different.

“We remember winning first when there were just four teams [in Tier 2], and we won it against UNE,” Mathews said. “But really it was a post-season game. [NIRA] didn’t call it anything. Only Tier 1 was called a ‘national championship’ and Tier 2 didn’t have a designation because of NCAA rules. So to travel 40 minutes down the road to play your in-state rival – it was a good game but there was no recognition [back then].”


Photo: Brian Beard/CIPhotography.com

In 2019, NIRA divided into Tier 1 and Tier 2, both of which include DI and DII teams, and DIII, which is for DIII teams only. That move created an understandable structure that is indicative of how the league wants to grow, and it’s more attractive to athletic departments considering the move to NCAA varsity. On Sunday, Nov. 17, all three national championships occurred at Harvard’s Mignone Field and were broadcast on ESPN+.

“The professionalism that came with the [national championship] event – the buildup and organization – and what commissioner Amy Rusert did with NIRA and the HSBC sponsorship, and having it hosted at Harvard – it did legitimize it and made it bigger,” Mathews distinguished the 2019 final from years past.


Brian Beard/CIPhotography.com

Bowdoin beat UNE 27-12 in the regular season, but a national championship brings a different brand of nerves and excitement, and can be influential in the outcome. Mathews and assistant coaches Bob Mathews and James Read (whom Mathews lauds as “just the best”) reminded the team that they did the work, improving incrementally week to week, and that they were ready.

“We had to play good defense, which has been the hallmark of the whole season,” Mathews talked goals for UNE. “We’ve had a high tackle ratio all year. If you put pressure on the other team then mistakes will happen and offense will come. The second thing was: When we have the ball we have to retain it because other teams will put pressure on you too.”


Photo: Brian Beard/CIPhotography.com

UNE scored first, and early, as Mariah Chase worked the defense off the lineout and hit Katie Berger for the try.

“They took better care of the ball after that,” Mathews said of the response to an early deficit. “They had to play defense quite a bit in the first quarter, and it took a while for it to get going. When they had possession, they scored five minutes later.”

Petronzio scored the first of her two tries to even it up, and then the Bowdoin forwards really started to work well together. A lovely driving lineout got UNE retreating, and then the ball moved to the other side of the field for senior flanker Amber Ramos, who won all of Bowdoin lineouts, to score the go-ahead try.


Photo: Brian Beard/CIPhotography.com

“When Ashlynn Autrey took the ball on an angle off Hannah Zuklie, it was a coach’s dream come true,” Mathews recalled a standout series. “She didn’t score – the fullback caught her – but that was the moment I realized that they were clicking on all cylinders and making good decisions. Soon afterward they made another good decision and ran a play and scored.”

Ramos, Zuklie, Autrey, Carges, Victoria Williamson and Safiya Osei did the yeoman’s work in the breakdowns and took those hard punches into the tight defense. Fullback Karris then dazzled the field with back-to-back, long-range breakaways, weaving through defenders, and scoring twice. Petronzio kicked the conversion for the 22-5 lead at half.


Photo: Brian Beard/CIPhotography.com

“At halftime we talked about tracking their big ballcarriers and getting your shoulder in for the tackle. We weren’t doing it well,” Mathews said. “We talked about defensive pressure and how well they were playing when they kept the ball in hand.”

UNE made adjustments in the second half, but the only score of the final 40 occurred after a turnover that Petronzio returned down the sideline for a long-range try that left the wing exhausted on the turf: 27-5 the final.

“It felt so good just knowing how hard this team worked and what they came through in preseason and early season. They bonded together and got through it. It’s one of those feelings you never forget. It’s euphoric,” Mathews said.

Osei was named MVP of the NIRA Division III National Championship.


Photo: Brian Beard/CIPhotography.com

“I was so happy they named her MVP and not because I want to take away from our speedy backs,” Mathews said. “It’s so hard to name an MVP because rugby is a team game, but Osei, our tighthead prop, had very strong carries with the ball and clear-outs in the rucks and helped us maintain possession. She made a statement with her physical presence and carrying ability and tied up their defense.”

The impact – for the program, its standing on campus, and women’s rugby generally – was immediate.

“It goes back to what I said about Amy Rusert as commissioner,” Mathews said. “The Bowdoin athletic director and assistant athletic director, fans, alumni and family from all over – they were all watching the game on ESPN+. To have it at Harvard stadium and with John Broker and Alex Goff announcing, that put it on the map. That was fantastic.”


Photo: Brian Beard/CIPhotography.com

When Mathews communicates with potential recruits and sends them video of the event and final, all of that fanfare and legitimacy will come through. The current players feel it, too. Bowdoin lined up a police escort and pep band for the team’s return to campus, and the college president, faculty and staff were waiting for them at the club fieldhouse.

“That was a surprise. They were so excited,” Mathews said. “Everyone on campus is high-fiving you. Everyone is reaching out with congratulations. So yes, you get some press and more recognition, and now Bowdoin is on the map.”

On the map with a big gold star.

#Bowdoin NIRA

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