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Bowdoin’s Keen to Defend the Title

  • 13 Sep 2021

IG Photo: (via IG @bowdoinwomensrugby)

Bowdoin College is the reigning National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA) Division III national champion, and the Maine program kicked off its 2021 campaign against Norwich University last Saturday. The Polar Bears banked a 53-10 win against the Cadets and is keen on building another trophy run.

RELATED: Fixtures & Results: Sept 8-12

Covid-19 didn’t impact every NIRA program equally, but Bowdoin was able to actually build some momentum, and numbers, during the pandemic. The college set up the 2020-21 schoolyear so that freshmen (Class of 2024) were the only students on campus in the fall, and then they swapped spots with the sophomores, juniors and seniors for spring 2021. There was a caveat, however, that allowed upperclass students to report to Brunswick, Maine, in the fall. Anyone involved with Resident Life or research with a faculty member had to report in person, and thus Bowdoin head coach MaryBeth Mathews had seven non-freshmen at fall 2020 practices.

“It was very unusual. Not a lot of other teams found themselves in that position,” Mathews said. “But that’s the great thing about rugby; it attracts girls and women who are interested in a number of things. They’re not a ‘one size fits all’ that you might see in soccer or basketball, where that’s all they do. I’m not trying to stereotype any other sport, but my team is involved in a lot of other things.”

IG Photo: (via IG @bowdoinwomensrugby)

Mathews brought in five rugby recruits for 2020-21, and then the team got to work hanging recruitment flyers around campus, like it does every year.

“Because there was nothing else going on, and it was such an isolated, online learning experience – they even had to eat in their dorm rooms – we got 16 walk-ons,” Mathews enthused. “I had 28 people last fall. The upperclassmen realized, ‘O.K., this is going to be a very different fall. We’re not catering to my needs but to the needs of the new players and recruits.’ They got that and it was really special.”

Those who weren’t on campus weren’t forgotten and attempts to build some unity virtually were made via Zoom calls and social justice projects. When the spring arrived, freshmen could petition to stay on campus if their home life didn’t support a great learning environment, and five got to stay. Again, there were 28 players for masked training sessions at weird hours, but it kept the team moving.

“Everyone is just grateful for being able to play and for how hard Bowdoin is working to keep everyone safe and in-person learning on the books,” Mathews said.

IG Photo: (via IG @bowdoinwomensrugby)

Some walk-ons washed out for the 2021-22 season, but Bowdoin’s current roster looks good with 40 players. Like everyone else, the Polar Bears have two classes that have never had a rugby season, but the team files that under the uncontrollables, and is working toward building trust and chemistry within the ranks. Captains Ashlynn Autrey and Jenna Clukey are key to that process.

“They stepped up their commitment of playing the sport and have made a big difference,” Mathews said of the seniors who walked on their freshmen years. “They’re big on eating right, sleeping right, getting your homework done, not finding excuses to not lift or come to practice. It’s the whole senior class, though, that has really stepped it up.

“But I would say the hallmark of this team is that they are all good people with good character,” the coach added. “We talk about cultural architects, and we’re full of them.”

Bowdoin traveled to Norwich for the teams’ season opener last Saturday.

“They capitalized on our mistakes,” Mathews said. “We definitely had first-game jitters. The first kickoff went two feet and hit our own player. One of their kickoffs was bouncing toward the 10 meter and we misjudged it, and Norwich caught it after it crossed the 10. They scored on one of those. We made our first-game mistakes and then we settled down.”

Norwich put juniors Leah Fuess and Jade Wimbish into the try zone, trailing Bowdoin just 19-10 after 30 minutes. Bowdoin then piled on three tries to end the half up 36-10 before pulling away for a 53-10 victory.

“Molly Petronzio scored four tries against Norwich and is just really quick on the wing,” Mathews said. “But 14 people worked really hard to get that ball to her. She scores tries, so keep an eye on her.”

A dominant scrum and solid defense – led by sophomore Sadie McClean, who bagged a team-leading 14 tackles – afforded more possession.

Petronzio is part of the important senior class, as is scrumhalf Sarah Nelson, hooker Sage Kashner and flanker Lucy Noel, all of whom Mathews called out as important leaders.

“Watch for Ella Slaby and Rebecca Vakarau,” Mathews said of the freshmen try-scorers. “They’re both recruits and have played a couple of years of rugby in high school. They’re looking to be playmakers – but they’re young, so don’t put a heavy weight burden on them.”

Mathews was impressed with sophomore Colleen Doucette, who also featured in the box score.

“The team looks better when Colleen is on the field,” Mathews said. “I guess you could say that about anybody – that we would be a different team without them – but Colleen makes us look good.”

The team is back on the road this Saturday and will face Colby-Sawyer in New London, N.H. Mathews has also scheduled two non-NIRA games against fellow Maine team Colby College (Oct. 2) and DII titan Vassar College on Oct. 16.

“The team sets their own goals, and their top goal is to defend the championship,” Mathews closed. “They are like-minded in wanting to do that. But underneath all of that, they want to play well and get incrementally better every day.”

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