TRB wrote an article about San Jose State and its incredible rebuild from five players to more than 40 across last summer, and it’ll feature on FloRugby shortly. We won’t cannibalize that article, but like the Chobot piece, there was enough information for a second story line, and in this case, it’s Tiffany Lopez.
As Lopez tells her rugby-origin story – the story of attending one practice and falling in love – her delivery betrays that of someone who’s only been involved with the sport for one-and-a-half years. Yes, the passion and energy are there and familiar, but her knowledge base and saavy are unique.
And then it gets clearer: Lopez is a former taekwondo national champion, and when her rugby career ends one day, she’ll likely teach the martial art for life.
“I was looking to take a break,” Lopez reflected on the past 20 years. “I was looking for something fun and something more of a game, not so much one-on-one competition. My background [in sports], it was a really big personal journey. [Rugby] was something with physical contact and similar morals. Combat and physical sports come with a lot of passion and ability to be humble to be a good competitor.”
But all of those good traits of discipline and voracity still pump through this leader, now a senior. At the end of Lopez’s first season in spring 2018 – really just a handful of games considering her November start and team forfeits – the five returners had to decide whether they were going to exert the effort to build a team for the fall. The scenario mirrored that of San Jose State’s inaugural team close to 10 years ago, as told by Lopez. That team played one season and then had little interest in rebooting, and the team went into hiatus.
But this core group committed and dug right in during the summer. Lopez does a lot of graphic design work for her day job, and deployed those skills when recruiting during freshmen move-in day and other new-student activities.
“What the program was lacking was a sense of a fundamental base. There wasn’t much to grow off of last year so we had to start from scratch,” said Lopez, who thanked Fresno State for insight into how to build a well rounded women’s program. “Last year there were no crowds, we didn’t have banners or anything, and now we get 40-50 spectators for a home game in the rain, we host concessions. We’re building more of an experience for the girls instead of just taking hand-me-downs from the men’s team. We really upped recruitment and fundraising, and make sure to involve the girls so they are part of the team.”
Lopez launched an eTeamSponsor campaign and raised nearly 300% more than the intended goal. The team receives support from Lopez’s taekwondo school and a local doctor, and now it can offer PT after games and other recovery/training services.
Lopez also found the right coach in James Fonda, and he’s been able to turn hard-working athletes into rugby players. San Jose State is 3-1-1 and conference DII West Coast playoffs are a possibility.
But in reality, bigger gains have already been made. The roots for sustaining a program and not just enjoying one successful season are in place. The danger of course is that a personality like Lopez graduates and that organization and momentum are lost, but the senior isn’t about to let her passion project idle.
“Ella True and Aimee Ramos are both sophomores, so they’ll have two more years together, and we’ve all been working together since the start,” Lopez said. “It’s been a team effort to get here. It was definitely my vision but none of this would have been possible without the amount of help I’ve had. They’ll be the face of the team and the ones representing the board, and I know they’ll do great.”
Additionally, Lopez intends to remain on as a team manager for the next 4-5 years after graduation, and that continuity will be vital.
We’ll be tracking the Women of Sparta this spring and hope they can add a post-season experience to their new track.