top of page

A Brief History of the First Women’s Collegiate Championships

An Interview with Roshna Wunderlich and Colleen Lanigan

Cameo Appearance by Jami Jordan

All evidence indicates that the first competitive women’s rugby teams in the United States were at the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, both formed in late 1971. They were followed in early 1973 by four other teams. An additional 22 teams formed in 1974, with 15 of those being university teams. Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s women’s rugby continued to grow with a majority of those teams adopting the names of colleges and universities. But until 1990, very few rosters of women’s collegiate rugby teams were entirely undergraduate students of the university; most college teams were made up of graduate students, alumnae, and local residents.

It’s not surprising that women’s rugby initially flourished in college towns. In the 1970’s, college towns were attractive places to live - rent was cheap, the music was good, co-ops abounded, few graduates were burdened with student debt, and the pressure to enter the job market wasn’t as prevalent. Many college towns like Madison, WI, Tallahassee, FL, and Chapel Hill, NC, also had strong feminist communities with notable artists and writers living in the area. Another perk was that university fields were generally easy to access.

Over the years many players moved out of college towns and seeded new teams around the country. Many women’s teams can trace their roots back to a handful of college teams (University of Wisconsin, University of Illinois, Texas A&M, Louisiana State University, Florida State University, UC San Diego, University of Virginia, the University of Maryland to name a few). By the mid to late 1980’s, more college teams began to attract college players which often resulted in mismatches between college teams with rosters of young, novice players and college teams that were essentially club teams with rosters dominated by experienced, older players. Florida State University was a notable example of a university team that dominated the college and club levels - they won a number of national championships in the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s, yet only had a handful of undergraduate students on the roster.

The Women’s Committee, the governing body of women’s rugby, understood the challenges and dangers of hosting events in which club and college teams competed against one another, with a few forward-looking administrators aligning themselves with some precocious college students who were invested in developing the collegiate game including developing a true collegiate championship.

Two of those precocious students were Roshna Wunderlich and Colleen Lanigan, both students at the University of Virginia in the 1980’s. Roshna and Colleen were young but many women administrators at that time were also young with very few over the age of 30. Together these young women ‘built the road as they walked it,’ creating a pathway for the future of women’s rugby.

Roshna - top row, far left. Colleen - top row, second from right. Current UVA coach, Nancy Kechner - front row, middle behind the ball. Roshna and Colleen were the only two undergraduates on the team. The others are graduate students or community members.

How did you get into rugby?

Roshna: I went to the University of Virginia and I wanted to row, or maybe play lacrosse. They said I would be a great coxswain because I was small . . . but I wanted to row, not coordinate other people rowing. My friend was playing rugby and said I should come play. Rugby became a passion and eventually the reason that I ended up coaching and coordinating other people playing rugby. I played in college when the collegiate game was transitioning, so many of our teammates and our competition were not students. I ended up president/captain of the team and then the women’s representative to the Virginia Rugby Union.

Sometime shortly after college, I was asked by Jamie Jordan, Chair of the Women’s Committee, to serve as a liaison between the Women’s Committee and the Collegiate Committee (the “Collegiate Committee” at the time was really the men’s collegiate committee). My role was to figure out where women’s collegiate teams “belonged” from an organizational standpoint and to organize a true women’s collegiate championship.

The Air Force Academy - 1991 National Collegiate Champions

Air Force Players: Dana Teagarden, Natalie Whitman, Margo Willoughby, Michelle Smith, Anne Williams, Shelly Ripple, Maggie Dawson, Tracy Hubbard, Laura Pipe

What year was the first collegiate women’s championship and what was your role in making that happen?

Roshna: The inaugural National Collegiate Championship was held in 1991 and hosted by Northern Virginia Women (NOVA). Chris Casatelli was the president of the NOVA and did much to organize the tournament. But even at the first championship teams were not yet fully “collegiate.” The guidelines for the 1991 Collegiate Championships were that 85% of the team members had to be enrolled as undergraduate students.

The 1992 National Collegiate Championship required 100% of the players to be enrolled college students. This 1992 national championship was hosted by the Air Force Academy and came on the heels of a long debate about who should govern women’s collegiate rugby (as well as the format of the national championships). It was an interesting debate because, in the long term, it seemed clear that the collegiate teams should be governed together but there was a real disparity in access to resources and overall interest in the women’s game from collegiate men or USA Rugby. The people who really cared about women's collegiate rugby were the women’s clubs because they knew their vitality and future depended on the health of the women’s collegiate game. The women who had just won the World Cup were also heroes to many collegiate players - they represented a possibility that never had existed for women. Nevertheless, it was clear that the issues facing collegiate women were more aligned with the issues facing collegiate men and so we decided that it would be wise to identify ourselves with college rugby as opposed to women’s rugby

Colleen: In the 1980’s, UVA hosted the Virginia Women’s Invitational Tournament. As we fostered the growth of collegiate programs across the Virginia Rugby Union (VRU), which was also happening in neighboring states, we faced the dilemma every year of creating fair brackets of play with strong club teams and fledgling inexperienced collegiate teams. We were the first tournament to create a separate division for true collegiate teams, and also premiere several budding high school programs from the Northern Virginia area in exhibition matches. It was exciting to see so many women of all ages and skill sets coming together in one venue. There was a feeling and vibrant energy that our sport was about to have a growth spurt, with older and younger players working together to create a unified future. We were ready to create the collegiate championships.

What were some of the challenges you faced?

Roshna: My youth and inexperience. When I look back, it seems I was even younger and less experienced than I thought I was at the time. But I balanced that with a deep respect for women like Jami Jordan, who was running the women’s committee, and Colleen Lanigan, who was a territorial representative and a committed administrator. They truly facilitated a change in women’s rugby and were welcoming to young women like me - bringing us into positions of power and mentoring us. One of the biggest challenges we faced was timely communication. No one had computers - email didn’t exist so we communicated by LETTERS. I am amazed that we organized national championships by mail and through landline telephone conversations. The communication challenges really showed and at the first collegiate championship some things went disastrously wrong. Overall miscommunications often led to unnecessary conflicts.

Jami Jordan: There were a number of challenges. Since the Women’s Committee was still essentially running women’s events under the auspices of USAR, we felt we could not hold a separate collegiate event. Human resources were just too scarce. We decided to hold the event alongside the Women’s Club Nationals in Washington D.C. over Memorial Day weekend. From a collegiate schedule standpoint, this made no sense. College students were out of school and had been for weeks at that point. But teams came anyway. Several men on the Collegiate Committee were in an uproar that we were going ahead with the event. They publicly called the women organizers ‘irresponsible’. Did I mention that the women’s college teams came anyway? Roshna is right, we were doing all of this via letters, sometimes faxed, so communication was a struggle. We only allowed 25 minute halves during the first collegiate championships. The feedback from the teams afterwards was that they didn’t want 25 minute halves, they wanted regulation time. Roshna is also correct in her recount of the struggle between the Women’s Committee and the Collegiate Committee. At some point though, both committees recommended that the administration of women’s collegiate rugby come under the Women’s Committee. However, the USA Rugby Board did not agree and moved it to the Collegiate Committee anyway.

Colleen Lanigan: I recall a blur of administrative meetings in hotel conference rooms throughout the country, long nights at Kinkos preparing packets for every meeting, folding and labeling envelopes to send said packets. Lengthy nights on the phone and highlighting my phone bills with all the rugby related long distance calls for reimbursement - this was life without email and cell phones! Although the years of meetings and tournaments have melded in my memory, what stands out is the energy and determination from women administrators at every level to care about the full spectrum of women’s rugby (youth through the Eagles) and to work tirelessly on developing the structures and resources to strengthen and unify the sport. Our leaders were juggling many roles simultaneously: as players, often at top levels; as administrators within their clubs as well as at local and regional levels; and as coaches and referees. They were fueled by a passion to see the sport flourish despite the limited resources and support (and truthfully, sometimes outright opposition and disdain) from the rugby governing bodies and public awareness. So maybe the tournament had some hiccups in structure - what I recall is the excitement from everyone there about having taken another leap forward in our rugby movement.

Describe the climate for college women’s rugby in the 1980’s:

Colleen: I played for the University of Virginia (UVA) Women’s Rugby Team as an undergraduate during the mid-1980s and my teammates were primarily alumnae and community members. There were very few undergraduates on the team. I loved the sport, but it was tough being an 18 year old first year student playing with and against adult women. At that time much of the team identity was connected to a specific rugby social culture, less as a university or collegiate identity. Our team enjoyed access to UVA facilities but did not have a good working relationship with the University. Team leaders like Nancy Kechner understood the need to recruit and retain younger players. Nancy encouraged me to take on a leadership role with the team. I worked diligently to get recognition and funding through the University as a sports club team, which was also the impetus for restructuring our squad to include more room for UVA students.

At that time as well, most women’s teams in Virginia had a poor or nonexistent relationship with the Virginia Rugby Union (VRU). As an undergraduate student, I then began working with the VRU as the Women’s Committee Director to advocate for all women’s rugby in our state, and to help fledgling college programs establish a good foundation with their universities. I also worked to secure funding, reputable coaching, and referee assignments. This work was challenging. There was animosity from some men’s programs towards recognizing and supporting women’s programs, and there was resistance from some women’s clubs who didn’t want to be governed by the VRU, an organization they felt had been hostile to their growth. Perhaps the greatest challenge was changing the social aspects of collegiate rugby to be more in line with the norms for other collegiate sports (for example, no more kegs on the fields and monitoring post game parties for alcohol use by underage minors; this was a strong goal of the men’s collegiate rugby as well). Before long, I took on several administrative roles within USA Rugby East, always with the goal of promoting and growing women’s programs.

Who were the notable college teams in the early championships? What made them successful?

Roshna: The most successful teams at that time had some level of consistent coaching. Rugby was not well known in the U.S., so players were seeing it for the first time when they went to college. It was also rare for universities to have the infrastructure or resources to support club athletic teams, so when even a little bit of resources were committed to a team it made a big difference in how successful those teams became. I recall some teams - Air Force Academy, Boston College and Princeton - as being very well coached and organized.

Here is the clip about the inaugural women’s collegiate championships from “Touchline”, the newsletter of USA Rugby. It was on page TWO of this same issue that it was announced that the USA women had won the World Cup.

So after starting graduate school you left rugby. How did you find your way back?

Roshna: In the early-to-mid 1990’s I was beginning graduate school and quit all involvement with rugby. A few years later I was a postdoc at Penn State and saw a sign promoting the USA Rugby Collegiate National Championships. I thought, “Wow! I’m so glad to see the collegiate national championships are going strong. The tournament looks well-run, maybe I'll go check it out!” At the tournament, I began chatting with some parents, who introduced me to their daughter who played for Penn State. I went to watch a practice the next week and met Pete Steinberg who encouraged me to come out and help coach. I coached at Penn State until I moved to James Madison University (JMU) for a faculty position and started coaching there as well. I was an assistant coach with the MARFU U-23 Women, and an assistant coach with the Mid Atlantic RFU Men. I've been coaching the JMU women for 20 years. I’ve also worked in the USAR Coach Development Program.

About 8 years ago, I started managing the Women’s National Team. I managed the Women’s National Team through the 2014 and 2017 Women’s World Cups. It was a blast, and I will cherish the memories and the many wonderful players and staff with whom I worked. I did the last 3 months of it with my newborn son. After 2017, I knew it was time to be with my son, to catch back up on my academic career, and to give my collegiate team the attention they deserved.

Colleen: I found UVA women’s rugby during student orientation; one of my dorm suite mates had lived in England and was always envious of her brothers being able to play rugby. I was so skinny that I had to wear socks in my pockets so I wouldn’t give my teammates a black eye when they tackled me. By my fourth year, I had destroyed my ACL. I remained affiliated with the UVA team for a few years after graduation, playing here and there but after repeated surgeries it was clear my knee would never be strong enough to play. I moved to Chapel Hill, NC in 1990 and found a woman playing hooker for the Duke men’s graduate team, and we started a women’s rugby club with a few other players. As an administrator, I held positions with UVA, the Virginia Rugby Union, USA Rugby East, and then as the chair for the USA Women’s Committee. I was lucky enough to travel to New Zealand for the first Women’s World Rugby Festival and then retired from rugby in 1995 or 1996. I have spent the past 30 years in the Chapel Hill area working for Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation as the local coordinator for our year-round, community-based Special Olympics program (18 different sports but rugby is not one of them). I currently share my dining room table/home office/quarantine school with my twin 7 year old daughters, and our cats, dogs and goats.

1,507 views0 comments


bottom of page