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Harvard Women’s Rugby Named Varsity Sport

By Samantha Lin and Justin C. Wong, Contributing Writers

It has been nearly 20 years since the school with the most Division I varsity sports programs in the NCAA has added a varsity team. Since women’s golf became a varsity sport in 1993, Harvard has not seen any new additions to its varsity lineup.

But the wait is over—starting in 2013-14, the Harvard-Radcliffe Rugby Football Club will change from club status to varsity, making it the 42nd varsity program at Harvard.

“What happened was maybe 18 months ago we approached the athletic department with the request to go varsity, and they gave us sort of benchmarks,” coach Brian Hamlin said. “In order to go varsity, we had to meet certain standards. So over the last 18-24 months, we met those standards. We were very fortunate that the athletic department was willing to talk about it and willing to sort of lay out a foundation for what we had to do to become varsity.”

Assistant Athletic Director Kurt Svoboda explained the changes necessary for a sport to move from club to varsity status.

“There’s so much to be considered,” Svoboda said. “There’s everything from gauging student interest to numbers, commitment, participation, administration, facilities, athletic training—all these things that are kind of ancillary that people maybe wouldn’t consider. There’s just a lot that goes into elevating a program in that matter. It’s not as easy as just flipping a switch and saying, ‘Now we’re a varsity team.’”

In the spring of 2011, the Black and White made a convincing argument to be considered for varsity status when it captured the USARugby Collegiate Division II National Championship with a 22-10 upset victory over No. 3 Notre Dame.

After the stellar 2010-11 campaign, Harvard secured a spot in Division I for the 2011-12 season—a spot the team has maintained since then.

“[The womens’ rugby team has] such a strong history of success and competition,” Svoboda said. “I think that people within the University saw that they were carrying themselves more like a varsity program than a club program, as far as commitment and regular practices and adhering to guidelines that are in place.”

The change marks the first time that a women’s team has gone varsity before its male counterpart, a distinction that rugby team president Sarah MacVicar attributes to Title IX.

“Because of Title IX, and how far out of compliance [with the amendment] most schools are, it’s hard for a men’s team to go varsity, and I think that’s probably the main reason why we’re making that transition [first],” MacVicar said. “But it really will provide a lot of resources for both teams, which will be very exciting.”

Harvard will be the first of the Ivies to add women’s rugby to its slate of varsity teams. Although MacVicar says every school in the league is still out of compliance with Title IX—Harvard included—the move marks a step in the right direction and sets the bar for the rest of the Ancient Eight to follow.

The Black and White will continue playing in the newly formed Ivy Rugby Conference, composed of club rugby teams from around the Ancient Eight, but the shift to varsity will bring with it benefits to the program.

“[Being varsity] means a lot more resources,” said Ali Haber, who serves as captain of the forwards. “The athletic department is supporting us—we’ve been a little rag-tag in the past. We’re going to get new equipment, new uniforms, [and] a lot of travel support from the athletic department that we haven’t had before.”

Before the team can reap the benefits of varsity status, though, it must use this year’s transitional period in order to come into line with expectations for a varsity sport.

“We’ve stepped up our practice times, so we’re practicing every day of the week when we’re in season,” MacVicar explained. “We’re also lifting twice a week and basically [are] trying to operate as much like a varsity team as possible.”

The team’s transition to varsity reflects both increased popularity on campus and a desire to grow the sport nationally.

Haber believes that rugby has grown and broadened its appeal during her time on the team.

“We must have had 40 new girls show up to the first practice, which was really amazing,” she said. “You see all different types of people—people who are really in it because they want a varsity-level sport, people who just want to try something new, and people who are in it for the community, which I think was what the focus was on before. It was on the community and less on the competitiveness of the sport, and that’s what’s changing [now].”

But despite rugby’s increased commitment level, Svoboda still believes there is room for newcomers to join and be successful.

“Because it’s still an emerging sport, there’s room for new athletes to come into the school and sport and say, ‘Hey, I just want to try this out,’” Svoboda said. “I mean in all our sports, we have open tryouts and walk-ons, and I think it’s just an awesome setup. ”

Perhaps more important than the campus-wide changes that the varsity status brings are the nationwide changes that Radcliffe’s precedent will likely launch.

“For us, the biggest thing was what [becoming a varsity team] does to rugby throughout the country, how becoming a varsity sport legitimizes women’s rugby, and that was really important for us,” Hamlin said. “Once Harvard went varsity, it opened the gates for everyone else to go varsity.”

There seems to be increased interest in collegiate rugby, especially among Ancient Eight schools, although it remains to be seen whether other schools will follow the Crimson’s lead and seek varsity status.

“The Ivy League basically formed its own rugby conference, and I think that speaks to the interest in the sport, certainly on the Ivy League level,” Svoboda said. “Forming that kind of league for club sports is something that you just don’t see in other sports, and that’s a sign of increased interest from students in rugby.”

Further, rugby is growing on the world stage. It will return to the Olympics in 2016 for the first time since the 1924 Games, which makes the team’s successful transition even more exciting, according to Megan Verlage, who serves as captain of the backs.

“The sport is growing and is going to be in the 2016 Olympics,” she said. “Because of the development of the sport, we wanted to make sure we weren’t just keeping up but leading the way for making rugby a competitive sport at the collegiate level.”

Svoboda, for one, cites the physical nature of the sport as evidence of rugby’s high potential for growth and popularity—something that is unique within women’s athletics at Harvard.

“This will be the only full-contact women’s team that we have, which I think is pretty cool,” he said. “I can’t wait to go out and see games. Don’t tell me [the players are] not intense and don’t care about gaining that extra yard.”

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