After an extremely successful fall campaign and a top-two finish in Northeast regional play on Sunday afternoon, the Radcliffe rugby team qualified this weekend for the Sweet 16 phase of the USA Rugby National Championship Series.
The low-profile group of club female athletes is now setting its sights on preparing physically and financially for the spring playoffs, to be held at the University of Florida in April.
“We’re incredibly excited about the season,” forwards captain Sarah E. Kleinschmidt ’05 said. “This weekend just adds to that.”
The team entered the season on a note of uncertainty, having graduated a core group of talented senior leadership, and boasting a roster filled out with freshmen, who comprise almost half of the squad’s full complement of nearly 40 players.
“We started the year not really knowing what would happen,” backs captain Steph V. Sherman ’05 said.
The team came together and rolled to a one-loss regular season, its lone defeat coming at the hands of the University of Massachusetts. The defining performance of the fall came on Nov. 6, in a 20-14 upset win over the Army Black Knights.
“They expected to roll over us,” Sherman said. “But we had a great game.”
That triumph propelled them into the next stage of post-season qualifying and a showdown with rival Vassar. Although the Radcliffe side competed valiantly, they ultimately fell by a five-point margin in the hard-fought game.
That left them on the brink of elimination later in the day, set to square off against Ivy League nemesis Cornell in a must-win scenario. In its meeting with the Big Red, the team charged out of the gates, staking itself to an early lead, falling behind, and then charging back for a 15-12 win.
“Everyone just stepped up and played a really intense game,” Kleinschmidt said.
The victory translated to a second-place showing in the Northeast, resulting in the 15th national seed for the team in the brackets unveiled Monday for the Sweet 16.
Team coach Carlene Connors said she has been thrilled with the development of the squad, morphing from an unproven pack of eager players to national title contenders in just a few short months.
“I can’t say enough about them,” Connors said. “They are such a talented, enthusiastic, dedicated group. They are so special.”
Team members said the close-knit ties and warmth around the team have allowed all of the Radcliffe players to endure a noticeable lack of notoriety around campus, and, as a club team, a lack of recognition and support on the part of the athletic department.
“We’re doing this for each other,” Kleinschmidt said. “Not for the glory, but for the competition. We play because we love the sport.”
That motivation will have to encourage all of the members of the self-financed team through a massive fund-raising effort during the team’s winter off-months. In between fitness sessions on the track or in the weight room, the rugby team will organize itself to pull together the capital to send the entire team to Gainesville, Fla. for the tournament, and hopefully beyond, to Palo Alto, Calif. for the Final Four.
“We’ll be doing every little thing we can do,” Sherman said. “There will be a huge fundraising push throughout the winter, including help from alumni.”
That alumni network, however, is not nearly as deep for the women’s team as it is for the men’s team, whose existence can be traced back over 100 years. To compensate, the players will throw themselves into a number of wage-earning chores, including shoveling snow. They have also received support from University President Lawrence H. Summers, who has lined up some financial backing for the team and attended a mid-season home game to cheer them on.
But the team is taking the fundraising burden in stride. They’ve planned a spring break trip to England to play teams there and take in the sights. And they said they’re just thankful for the chance to play a sport they love.
“There are a lot of ‘what ifs,’” Kleinschmidt said. “But we’re not disappointed. We’re thrilled about the chance to be in the playoffs.”