Updated: Mar 10, 2021
The history of women’s rugby began at the University of Colorado and Colorado State in 1971, with the first women's collegiate national championship awarded 20 years later in 1991 to the United States Air Force Academy. While women’s rugby quickly spread across the nation, it was and remains very attached to colleges and universities. Below we give a shout out to some of the oldest and most notable college programs (one criteria for selection was the program had to be in existence for at least 10 years). This is by no means scientific and we’d love your thoughts on the university teams you believe deserve our thanks.
University of Colorado v. Colorado State University and United States Air Force Academy
1-2: University of Colorado and Colorado State: 2021 is the 50th anniversary of the first women’s rugby teams in the U.S. While the first match was not played until 1972, the University of Colorado and Colorado State launched women’s rugby as we know it. This year every player, coach, and referee should face west and salute the brave women who refused the offer to play Powder Puff rugby and opted for the ‘full contact monty’. They are the real mothers of dragons.
3: Florida State University: Founded in 1974, FSU was competitive out of the gate. Playing touchline to touchline, FSU produced teams far superior to the competition, dominating women’s rugby for over 20 years. Not surprisingly, they produced some of the biggest stars of the women’s game, most notably Kathy Flores, Patty Jervey, and Candi Orsini. Consider that six of the 1991 World Cup players played for FSU.
4. Penn State University: What FSU did for women’s rugby in the first 20 years, PSU did for the early 2000’s and mid 2000’s. PSU didn’t appear upon the women’s scene until 1991 but they soon set the bar for dominant play. They have been in the final four every year since 1993, won their first DI National Title in 1997, and have since reeled off 11 more wins. Under the leadership of Pete Steinberg, PSU created the first ‘varsity’ club model and helped usher in a new era for women’s collegiate rugby. PSU produced a number of legendary players and coaches including Kim Magrini, Kate Daley, Sadie Anderson, and Gabby Cantorna.
5. University of Virginia: Founded in 1976, UVA has been a dominant team for decades. While the UVA women have been denied recognition by the university for years, you’d be hard pressed to find a program more consistently good than UVA. UVA has produced some notable players, coaches, and administrators (Jamie Burke, Roshna Wunderlich, Heather Hale, and Julie Lau) but there is no doubt that the driving force behind their greatness is Nancy Kechner. Her influence on her players and their ripple effect across women’s rugby has been dramatic.
6. UCLA: Founded in 1974, UCLA was an early adopter and dominant force in California rugby. The Bruins started strong - beating the San Francisco WRC in an exhibition game at the prestigious Monterey tournament in 1974 and winning the All-California University tournament in 1976. They remained consistently good until the mid 1990’s. UCLA produced a number of outstanding players including the legendary ‘locks from hell’, the 1991 World Cup tandem of Tam Breckenridge (US HOF) and Tara Flanagan (All World), and Elise Huffer (1991 World Cup). The UCLA team also included Ellen Cunningham, Kathie Morrison, and Anne Fowler, who served as national selectors and administrators. In addition, UCLA coach Franck Boivert (1981-1985) was one of the first coaches of the U.S. Women's National Team.
University of Virginia and UCLA
7. Stanford: Founded in 1976, Stanford has consistently fielded good and often great teams. A dominant team in the mid-2000’s Stanford has won the D1 national collegiate championships five times, been runner-up five times, and has been to the final four 15 times (a tournament they’ve frequently hosted). They’ve produced legendary players (Hall of Fame player Jenn Crawford and All-World player Jess Watkins). It’s mind blowing to consider that the Stanford women’s program produced not one, but two astronauts, Jess Watkins and Sally Ride.
8. Bowdoin: Founded in 1982, the Polar Bears were the first college to take the leap to varsity (2003) and NCAA/NIRA status. Led by Head Coach MaryBeth ‘MB” Mathews, Bowdoin is a perennial powerhouse in the NIRA DIII division (winning the 2019 DIII title). MB and her teams have been working to elevate women’s collegiate rugby since the mid-1990’s all while compiling 25 winning seasons. But it has been Mathew’s leadership and advocacy off the field that deserves our respect. MB served on the first USAR Collegiate Women’s Committee, she founded and led the NESCRC conference, and was one of the original founders of ACRA. Seeing a lack of off season opportunities for girls, MB created the Polar Bear rugby camp in 2012. The Polar Bears have produced their share of WNT players including Farrah Douglas and Christina Hobson. MB and her co-coach/husband Bob also teamed up to produce former U20 player, coach and referee, Katie Mathews.
9. Air Force Academy: The Zoomie were founded in 1977 and won the first Women’s National Championship in 1991. Since then, the Zoomies have maintained a ridiculous quality of play. They have been to the Final Four 11 times, winning the D1 title four times. They also won the D1 7’s Championship in 2019. The Academy has produced some outstanding WNT players like Shalanda Baker and Laura McDonald, as well as WNT player and pioneering referee Dana Teargarden. However, it’s humbling to consider that after kicking your ass on the field, all those players go onto lives of public service.
10. Radcliffe/Harvard: The Radcliffe Rugby Football Club was founded in 1982, named to honor the history of women at Harvard. The ‘Cliffes won the 1998 Collegiate National Championship, the first women’s team to win with an all-female coaching staff, followed by the 2011 DII National Championship and the 2019 NIRA National Championship. Radcliffe changed her name to the Harvard Women’s Rugby Club when she became the first D1 team to be elevated to varsity status in 2013, a bittersweet change for many a RadRugger, as shared by Emily Yee (Harvard '98). Radcliffe/Harvard has a long history of excellence and has produced a number of WNT great players and administrators including Alex Williams, Amanda Michelli, Koma Gandy-Fishbein, Katie Dowty, and Cheta Emba. We can all take comfort knowing that the new Secretary of Commerce and former governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, was a tough Radcliffe scrumhalf.
11. University of Illinois: Founded in 1973, UI was the third college team in the U.S. A good but never great team on the pitch, UI deserves our love for the ways in which they spread the gospel of women’s rugby far and wide. UI produced some good players but its forte was producing truly great administrators including Elissa Agello, the founder of the Women’s Committee, the first organizing body for women’s rugby, and Lisa Gartner who was one of the first editors of In Support and a long-time coach at Radcliffe.
12/13. University of California at San Diego and San Diego State University: Like Colorado State and the University of Colorado, UCSD and SDSU were founded within weeks of one another (1975). Both Universities mined the athleticism of California to produce great teams and spread the love of rugby across California and the country. SDSU was particularly successful in those early years. SDSU players left the University and formed the San Diego Surfers.
University of California at San Diego and Wisconsin University
14. Princeton: Founded in 1979, the Tigers won back-to-back national championships in 1995 and 1996. Princeton advanced to the D1 Final Four six times between 1997 and 2005. Later, under legendary coach Emil Signes (2005-2013), Princeton women placed 3rd in the USA Rugby Sevens Collegiate National Championships in 2011, 2012, and 2018 and took home multiple Ivy titles. The Tigers produced a number of outstanding players including WNT player Lauren Rhodes.
15. University of Wisconsin: Founded in 1974, Wisconsin competed in the first four women’s national tournaments. In the 1980’s, UW women were incredibly influential, growing rugby throughout the midwest. The program produced a number of WNT players, administrators, and coaches including Lisa Riehl and Lisa Meyer.
Honorable mentions: Boston College (1979), Brown University (1977), Dartmouth College (1978), UC Davis (1975), Texas AM University (1974), University of Georgia (1976), University of Maryland (1974), Vassar College (1980)