Good on Jackie Finlan from Rugby Magazine for this article on West Chester University’s varsity rugby team … it’s a good read and even better, paints a good portrait of how rugby and the NCAA can work together without losing the best aspects of what we all love.
West Chester University And Varsity Status
Tuesday Nov 27, 2007 in Magazine
By Jacqueline Finlan
The National Collegiate Athletic Association added women’s rugby as an emerging sport in 2001. It allotted USA Rugby a maximum of 10 years to create the 40 varsity programs required to make rugby an official NCAA sport. Six years later, only four universities (Bowdoin, Eastern Illinois, Southern Vermont and West Chester) have elevated their women’s club teams to varsity status.
The vast majority of collegiate rugby clubs exist without dedicated fields, athletic trainers and medical staffs and university-supplied budget – amenities that NCAA status would provide. So why haven’t more of the 330+ colleges where women’s rugby is played jumped on the NCAA bandwagon, especially when rugby is such a low-cost option for gender equity compliance?
For social clubs, varsity status will never be an option and they account for a fair percentage of those uninterested in seeking NCAA status. But for clubs on the competitive end of the spectrum, the hesitation to pursue varsity status may be a product of ignorance.
When Eastern Illinois coach Frank Graziano erected a web site (www.CollegeRugbyAmerica.com) purported to be the official home of women’s college rugby, many took notice. Information listed on the site (e.g. claiming that there is no girls’ high school rugby and that there are only four women’s college teams in the country) confused readers and proposed regulations that tore at the traditional fabric of rugby.
In actuality, Graziano’s web site describes how his club is run and what regulations his club follows, but women’s college sides seeking NCAA status have the ability to mold and abide regulations that they deem appropriate.
A perfect example is West Chester (PA) University’s Women’s Team, headed by coach Tony DeRemer, who initiated the club’s NCAA varsity status in 2004. While the Rams are fully compliant with NCAA regulations, DeRemer has limited the “downside” to varsity status while reaping all the benefits.
“Varsity is all about the athletes and what they get,” DeRemer states.
“When the university allots your team a $35,000 budget, it’s easy to focus on the players’ needs.” For away games, this money covers charter bus transportation, airfare to National Championships and the EIU match, lodging and meals. Player equipment and uniforms (jerseys are replaced every couple of years), laundry service an equipment manager, and a salaried part-time coach are also factored into the budget.
West Chester plays its home matches on a dedicated, on-campus rugby pitch with permanent uprights. The home pitch sports a scoreboard and PA system, which announces WCU’s and opponent’s starting XV before piping the national anthem. Statisticians monitor the match, and the media and administration observe from a press box.
The team also has access to the turf field hockey and lacrosse fields for practice and if its pitch is unusable. And when inclement weather threatened cancellation of the team’s 2006 MARFU playoff match, the football stadium opened its gates to the Lady Rams. Present at every match and practice is a medical staff. A certified athletic trainer and two student trainers are on hand at all times. Additionally, injured athletes have access to the rehab center. This care is one of the most positive aspects of varsity status; the key to a safe healthy club and an element that DeRemer cannot imagine being without.
“When I was coach of the club team, I was usually the first responder. I didn’t have a background in medical training, and it was dangerous for my players. I now realize how important it is to have that kind of care in a collision sport like rugby.”
“The university’s happy and we’re happy,” said DeRemer. “We’re a very successful club that brings a lot of positive exposure to the school. I think they enjoy having us as a varsity team.”
Varsity athletes also have access to a mentoring program, which aids them in balancing the demands of school work and their sport. Many of the players are freshmen, where there’s concern about a smooth transition from high school to college. Those with GPAs below the university’s minimum requirement can take advantage of the mentors’ advice, which ranges from how to approach a professor for help, to test-taking tips. DeRemer also receives midterm marks to ensure his athletes are not neglecting academics.
Compared to most collegiate programs, West Chester presents an attractive package to high school players looking for a competitive club. DeRemer’s recruiting efforts have remained constant, but he has noticed an increased number of women and coaches who proactively contact him about WCU’s program. High school players may then tour the school with WCU team members.
“Showing them West Chester’s amenities is something that really attracts players to the school,” DeRemer says. Once a high school player has committed to West Chester, DeRemer has some pull with admissions as far as fast-tracking applications. “And if they’re on their bubble, sometimes we can work out a way to get them in.”
The West Chester RFC offers one $1,000 scholarship per year (raising the money itself) and is currently working on a $10,000 endowment.
These draws have contributed to the Rams’ 46-person roster, which easily populates an A and B-side match every Saturday.
Varsity Status: Like a Scholarship in Itself
“Playing for a varsity team is like a scholarship in itself, with all the money that’s expended for the players for transportation, airfare and hotels. They save about $1,000 per year out-of-pocket by playing a varsity sport,” DeRemer says.
And never underestimate the value of recognition.
West Chester’s president honored the team at a dinner and the administration purchased commemorative jackets for the players when the Rams won last year’s East Penn Rugby Union Championship. In addition to coverage in the local newspapers, the school’s varsity web site publishes a report on every match, plus photos, statistics and player information.
“Many times when the players or staff are walking down the hall, students will say, ‘Congratulations!’ Because of the increased exposure, they know the rugby team and what’s going on.”
Preserving tradition, which ranges from jersey numbers to the post-match party, is a concern for some clubs. “Since the athletic department doesn’t have much knowledge of rugby, they look to me to generate a model. We don’t require players to wear headgear; we number our jerseys in the traditional 1-15; our referees are USA Rugby certified; and we allow our players to play in the National Championships,” DeRemer clarifies.
West Chester does not host a post-match party where alcohol is present, but it does throw a dinner social for opposing players, alumni and family. This practice is spreading as an alternative to the alcohol-soaked image that often stigmatizes rugby, and which has seen the suspension of numerous collegiate clubs across the country.
“It’s become more mainstream with non-varsity teams as well. Penn State and Navy have cookouts all the time. It’s a positive thing for rugby, and a safe one,” said DeRemer.
11 Matches, 132 Days Per Year
As an NCAA Division II school, WCU is limited to 11 matches per season, not including USA Rugby local, territorial and national union championships. Invitational tournaments, therefore, are out of the question, as each match, though abbreviated, counts toward the 11-match cap.
NCAA teams are allowed 132 “in season” days, so WCU doles out 66 days each for the fall and spring seasons. During those 132 days, athletes are not allowed to participate in any other sports. Athletes are also forbidden to compete in any all star or national team play while in season.
Fortunately, WCU women who are selected will be able to compete in the National U-23 Women’s All Star Championship next June, as it falls outside the spring season.
Finally, West Chester’s trainers are not allowed to physically evaluate injured players from opposing teams. Many opponents lack medical staffs, and while the WCU trainers want to help, liability is an issue the university wants to avoid.
“It’s an unfortunate situation,” De Remer states, especially since an opponent’s first responder is typically a coach or a parent who knows little about first aid.
At the end of the day, DeRemer feels the positives of NCAA varsity status far outweigh the negatives.
“Again, it’s all about the athletes and what they get – all the money, equipment and care.”
Tradition does not have to be sacrificed in a club’s transition to varsity status. Molding an appropriate program is in the hands of the coaches. There’s a vast spectrum of models from which to pick and choose.
“Teams need to be proactive and actually make the move,” DeRemer stresses. “Administrations are not going to approach the rugby team and say: Hey, we want you to go varsity.”
Speak with USA Rugby Emerging Sports Manager Becky Carlson (firstname.lastname@example.org, (303) 539-0300, x102) and learn about the requirements for NCAA status. Then contact any of the four current NCAA varsity teams and ask about designing a program that fits your needs. Finally, approach the school’s athletic director with a plan.
This article originally appeared in the 2007 November issue of Rugby Magazine.
And a quick note of clarification for everyone who has not had experience with NCAA athletic teams at the scholarship level. It’s important to note that being a varsity athlete on a team at a school that has scholarships doesn’t mean you get a full scholarship or even a partial scholarship. Very few athletes on a team get “full rides”, more often they get partial aid, sometimes even 10% of a scholarship that helps pay for tuition, etc. Some get nothing at all, even if they were recruited. It’s a big misconception that being a varsity athlete means a guaranteed full ride. Especially for how hard these athletes must work to stay on a team and keep their grades up.
So, above when they discuss the single $1,000 scholarship, plus working for a $10,000 endowment, that’s not uncommon for any small school varsity sport. Especially a new one. The school has a budget to pay for the team’s needs, which they mention above as being like a scholarship and saving each player money, in addition to providing medical care and academic help. Over time, a school can build it’s booster program and create more endowed scholarships.
Honestly, I think this is just great. I hope teams out there are working hard to become varsity like West Chester. Don’t miss this opportunity.