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Maddie Hughes & an Appreciation for Hard Work

  • 09 Jan 2022

Photo: Travis Prior for USA Rugby (@rugby_photog_co)

Soccer was Maddie Hughes’ first love. The North Carolinian started kicking the ball around at four years old and saw her future self as the next Mia Hamm. She started to play more and different sports as she aged, and then a months-long injury in high school spurred an identity crisis. Rugby intervened and not only saved Hughes’ academic and mental health, but opened up a new world of opportunity and aspirations.

When Hughes entered middle school, she added football, basketball, and track (200m) & field (shotput and discus) to her sports repertoire. She was playing for two football teams in 8th grade, and helped the Hammer Down Tar Heels to an AAU national championship. Hughes continued to play football as a freshman at South Meck High School, but a foot injury took her out of the game for four months.

“After my surgery my freshman year, I felt like I had no purpose,” Hughes said. “Sports was my whole life and me not being able to play sports really hurt. I wasn’t doing so well in school and my grades were awful.”

Hughes was at a low point, and that’s when classmate Lilly Separ invited her to a South Meck HS rugby practice.

“I fell in love with it,” Hughes effused. “It was pretty much everything football offered me except that it was a better community. I liked the people better. It took me a while to get the flow of the game and learn the rules, but once I got that down it was the best thing I could ever ask for.”

Hughes met rugby in May 2018 and learned the game from South Meck coach Fyniss Nixon.

“Sophomore year is when I really started getting into the team, and then when we picked back up for 7s in November, December, my grades turned around and I just stuck with it,” Hughes said. “My rugby coach in high school was great and always emphasized how important it was for me to get those grades up.”

In spring 2019, the then-sophomore broke into select side rugby, representing the Celtic Barbarians at Tropical 7s and then Great Northwest 7s in Canada. Junior year, the Stars picked up Hughes for the 2019 New York 7s tournament. Covid-19 canceled the rest of junior year rugby, but Hughes was in a good place to stay motivated.

Hughes with Tigress / Photo @TigressRugby

“Initially, [the impact of Covid] was shocking, but then it was, ‘I’ve been here, done that,’” Hughes reflected on her rebound from injury. “I know how to adapt and I know what can come of this, so I just trusted in the process.

“Covid ended up being a really big thing for me, in a positive way,” she continued. “It allowed me mature a lot and figure out what I want. I knew that I loved rugby and wanted to be the best at it, so that’s where I focused all of my attention. I was working out twice a day, focused on what I was eating and how it made me feel.”

South Meck didn’t field a team in 2020-21, so Hughes spent senior year with the Charlotte Tigress, which was one of the more active and successful programs last season. Queens University of Charlotte – and other rugby programs – showed interest in the power center.

“I always thought that my athletics would take me through college. Whether it was going to be soccer or basketball, I knew it’d be a sport,” Hughes said. “But when I started playing rugby, I didn’t have the best attitude. I wasn’t the best teammate. But even though people said all this crap about me and talked down on me, [Queens coach] Katie [Wurst] took a chance on me.”

Hughes conversed and visited with other schools, including AIC and Lindenwood, but felt a different connection at Queens.

Photo: Amy Nicholson

“But I didn’t even know if I’d be admitted,” Hughes said. “It was hard for me to recover grades wise because they were so bad that I really had to bust my butt to get them back to where they needed to be. I was proactively communicating with admissions all the time, on a weekly basis. I was in constant contact with Katie, and she never gave up on me.”

Hughes committed to Queens, an NCAA varsity program in NIRA, and finished out high school with Tigress.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted past college until this past summer, in June,” Hughes said. “I started working out with [Tigress teammate] Lennox [London], and we talked about what we want, and it’s both of our goals to go to the Olympics. We bonded over that common goal and have been inseparable since then. We’ve become best friends, we help each other, work out together, hold each other accountable. That connection helped me realize what I want.”

Hughes also noted the influence of London’s parents, who played big support roles in the players’ dreams.

“Whenever Lennox and I are in the ‘garage,’ they are always out there either doing it with us or supporting us and running the workouts,” Hughes thanked the Londons. Lennox is now a senior in high school and captains the new Charlotte Cardinals. She will report to Harvard University in fall 2022.

Photo: Amy Nicholson

“I was definitely nervous,” Hughes said of the first day of Queens’ pre-season. “I didn’t realize how big 60 looked until I was standing in it. I was kind of intimidated, especially since there are girls who have been here 3-4 years and they know what to expect. But I didn’t let that derail me. I knew what I wanted and I was going to go get it. I was really quiet at first, trying to not cause any problems, but I worked really hard all pre-season and all year, and tried to be the best teammate I could be.”

Alle English was a good influence.

“She took me under her wing,” Hughes said of the junior scrumhalf. “Throughout the season we started going to the field to kick together. I think we connect just on a common goal – we both work really hard and know what we want.”

She also connected with freshman Lea Preuss, whom Hughes described as a “like-minded go-getter,” and junior Angelica Rodriguez.

Photo: Amy Nicholson

“And Megan Reed, she’s a great role model.” Hughes said of the junior wing. “She’s everything you want in a teammate. Jenna Klenz, who plays hooker for us, is also so great. She’s such a leader for our team and does so much behind the scenes that no o
ne has any idea about. Same with our captain, Teaghan Steele; she really helps the team run smoothly.”

Even though Queens has 60 players, the Royals play a packed and diverse schedule, giving newcomers legitimate field time. Hughes distinguished herself in the back line. Against Navy, she scored four tries and kicked a conversion. In the Virginia Tech and AIC games, Hughes scored three tries and added a conversion apiece.

“I didn’t necessarily expect to start, but in the back of my mind I knew that when my time came, I was going to make an impact because I have worked so hard,” Hughes said of a stellar NIRA season. “I always told myself that what I do in the dark is going to come to light. And I think that happened for me this season. I spent the better part of [last] year really working on rugby – and not just the physical stuff. I was watching film and reaching out to coaches. ‘You’ve seen me play. What do you think I can work on?’ Even just talking to Katie and Dana [Meschisi] and all our other coaches during pre-season, just trying to get advice and build my game off that.”

Photo: Amy Nicholson

Hughes embraced her ambition, and after the NIRA season ended (Queens lost a heart-breaker to AIC, 22-20, in the DII semifinals), the freshman was one of five Royals invited to the USA U20 winter camp in Chula Vista.

“I was surprised, yes, but Katie did say, ‘People are watching you. And I know they know who you are in the USA pathway,’” Hughes said. “I didn’t want to get too excited until I knew anything, so when I got that [invitation] e-mail I was shocked but at same time it was really nice to know that everything I’ve been working for is kind of paying off. That I’ve been rewarded for my hard work.”

Hughes was one of 40 players at the USA U20 assembly, and according to head coach Joel Bonnaud, more than half of the attendees were new to the pathway. Fortunately Hughes had Queens freshmen Preuss, Kamia Kruse and Jay Stone and sophomore Avery Kemora in her company.

“I was just excited to go to camp and learn things from a different perspective and to be coached by a different perspective,” Hughes said of goals. “The higher-level coaches and being around people at the camp who want the same things as me and work hard no matter what, and they’re focused – that was awesome for me to be around.”

Photo: Travis Prior for USA Rugby (@rugby_photog_co)

Bonnaud explained that the camp revolved around instilling four habits, and Hughes echoed his sentiments but marveled at the level of detail in which these foci were addressed.

“We focused a lot on creating 2-on-1s, but Joel and Josie [Ziluca] and Farrah [Douglas], they’d ask us questions and we’d have to go into really, really specific detail,” Hughes explained. “It’s talking to your teammates. ‘Hey, we’re going to go for this defender.’ Or, ‘I’m going to go for this shoulder and I’m going to offload to you.’ Just recognizing where the space was and diving deeper into what that means and how you create it.”

The team also focused on clockwork (or field vision) and playing BIG, an acronym for being “back in the game,” which speaks to work rate. Hughes also got more insight into how she can be more impactful in the back line.

“Joel focused a lot on running lines – which is something I hear at every rugby practice – but more specifically the angle of my line or how fast I have to hit that line,” Hughes said. “Those were things I tried to do in practice and then implement into the [inner-squad scrimmage], and that helped create 2-on-1s. That was a new thing for me and made me realize, ‘Oh, I can do this. I can run this line and help our team gain 5-10 meters just by hitting this line hard.’”

Photo: Travis Prior for USA Rugby (@rugby_photog_co)

The scrimmage at the end of camp wasn’t a selection game, but an opportunity for players to apply lessons at full pace. Hughes enjoyed playing beside Lome Unga Lewis out of Kahuku, Hawaii, and Leila Opeti (Life West), as well as camp roommate Kat Storey from Quinnipiac. She marveled at the talent on display and noted NIRA national championship players Sia Meni and Sadie Schier from Dartmouth.

“It was also good to go to camp and play with my teammates from Queens as well, and see how we used that information we got and implemented it into our game,” said Hughes, who noted a special connection with Kemora. “The level of competition was raised, so that elevates everyone’s game, no matter who you are.”

When the camp broke, the messaging was clear: Take these habits home and continue to work on them throughout the spring, so more progress can be made at the summer assembly.

Queens photo

“I learned more than I thought I would at camp, so my biggest goal is to take all this new information and take it back home to Queens and see if we can run that in our system and have more success this season,” Hughes said of post-camp goals. “Personally, it’s just taking the drills – footwork, passing – and thinking about how I can work on that on my own or grab a few teammates and go to the field. I’ll keep working on my speed and in-game kicks, too. That was another big thing that Joel and Josie harped on during practice. Chip kicks, grubbers, those were always on. I tried a few in the game and had a successful chip kick, but I’ll keep working on it.”

Hughes won’t have to wait until the summer for more exposure to the USA pathway, as she was recently invited to the Martlet 7s camp, which takes place from January 28-February 3 at the Chula Vista Olympic Training Site. Martlet is a developmental arm of the USA 7s program. After that, it’s spring 7s for Queens, and Hughes is hoping the team qualifies for the National Collegiate Rugby Championship in Atlanta this May. The summer is a host of opportunities, all to be announced.

“I’d stress the importance of hard work, and if you put your mind to do something, you can do it. It’s trusting the process,” Hughes reflected on her own pathway. “If something doesn’t happen for you right away, that’s O.K. If you do the right things, and you work hard and never give up, things will fall into place for you.”

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