SUNY Cortland was the surprise of a surprising college season going undefeated and making the finals of National Collegiate Rugby (NCR) Small College National Championship. While SUNY Cortland fell to Wayne State College of Nebraska in the finals that doesn’t diminish the tremendous job done by the SUNY players and coaches. We start off this year by recognizing the two coaches who brought SUNY from mediocre to the national finals.
Where do you currently live?
Ashley: Rochester, NY
Natalie: Cortland, New York
Ashley: Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Clinical Education for the Master’s in Athletic Training Program
Natalie: Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Physical Education at SUNY Cortland
Teams you coach and why it's great to coach them:
SUNY Cortland Women’s Rugby Football Club
Ashley: Fall 2021 is my first semester coaching any sport! It’s an honor to coach these incredible young players - their dedication, buy in, and passion are truly remarkable. As an alum (’13) of SUNY Cortland it’s a privilege to give back to the school, community, and team that helped to shape me into the person I am today.
Natalie: As an alum (‘17), coaching this team has a special place in my heart. Spring of 2021 was a strange COVID off-season. We were running around in masks and playing with limited contact (flag/touch), trying to teach the game to new players. This past fall, I was able to take on a full-time coaching position alongside Ashley back in a “normal” practice environment. The players are dedicated, hardworking and unique in their own way. It has been so rewarding working with them and watching their successes on and off the pitch.
How did you get into coaching?
Ashley: Coach DiMeglio and the previous coach Matt Madden had been inquiring about my interest in coaching since my return to Cortland in the spring of 2020. Initially, I was more focused on my professional transition at the institution and then the pandemic shut everything down. Late in the spring of 2021, the coaching conversation resumed and I was in a much better place to be able to commit to the team for the fall 2021 season.
Natalie: I was hired by Cortland to teach a variety of activity courses for the Physical Education Department. Coaching rugby was always in the back of my mind. The opportunity presented itself in the spring of 2021 when two of the veteran players approached me. I felt confident taking on the coaching position, as I had learned a lot from Matthew Madden who I had the opportunity to play under while at Cortland. He has been a mentor to me as I continue to coach women's sports.
How is it working together?
Ashley: Honestly, it has been great. Coach DiMeglio and I played together at SUNY Cortland so we knew each other quite well. We work together on every aspect of the game from strategies to practice plans. Coach DiMeglio focuses more on the backs and I work more closely with the forwards. We don’t always see eye to eye but our skills and knowledge complement each other well.
Natalie: We keep each other in check!
What has been most challenging about this season? Most rewarding?
Ashley: The most challenging aspect of the season was definitely all the transitions resulting from the pandemic, from trying to rebuild our numbers, fundraising, and working through the administrative requirements with our recreational sports office, National Collegiate Rugby, and etc. It’s easy to pick up the ‘on the field’ stuff, but I forget how much behind the scenes work is required to run a team. Don’t get me wrong folks were incredibly helpful throughout the process but that’s not what’s on your mind as a new coach.
The most rewarding part for me was seeing the players develop and come together as a team. It’s easy to recognize that coming in second place at Nationals (a program best) is rewarding, but that doesn’t happen unless the team comes together, trusts the process, and continually works hard to get better each day.
Natalie: We must remember the players are student athletes playing a club sport. There was so much we all had to balance and juggle, including the players’ day-to-day lives. I think the most challenging part of coaching was being there for them during those personal challenges. I have no problem directing players when they are out on the pitch but off the pitch it’s a different dynamic. You have to be willing to really listen. When players open up to me I am able to build new levels of trust and connection. That trust they have in us is a reward and allows the coach and player dynamic to develop.
When you look out over the landscape for women's rugby, what are areas of advancement or concern for you?
Ashley: We see a lot of opportunities for advancement and growth, through visibility and positivity. Seeing rugby return to the Olympics, the power of social media, and positive interactions amongst the entire rugby community is key.
Natalie: Although the sport is rapidly growing, opportunities for women to play rugby are still lacking. Many players come to play for us knowing very little about the game. As college coaches we would like to see more development programs for female players from youth to the professional level.
Ashley: The responsibility for the advancement of the game comes from everyone involved including players, coaches, referees, and organizing bodies. Building a sense of community, inclusion, and acceptance are key. We hope to see folks continue to give back to the rugby community and hope the leadership especially amongst new organizations work towards gender equity.
What individuals have had an impact on your coaching career?
Ashley: The individuals that have had the biggest impact on me and my coaching career were certainly previous coaches both in and out of rugby. I learned a lot from these folks, their different coaching styles, philosophies, and the trust they had in me as a player. I hope to have a similar positive impact on the players I coach.
Natalie: Regardless of the sport I was coaching, the players have impacted me the most. I coach for them. Sometimes you are just having a bad day, but you can go to practice and your players and the atmosphere you have helped create just changes everything. And in moments like those, I know they have impacted my life and how much I want to give them my all as a coach.
What is your most sage coaching advice?
Ashley: Work hard and have fun, these concepts are not mutually exclusive. Also getting everyone to buy in, believe in the process, and trust that the coaches want the best for the players. But transparency is key to this, not blind trust.
Natalie: Instill determination, mindset and reflection. Whatever the teams' goals(s) may be, set them. Create the mindset that as a team they can achieve. Be the motivator, the voice of reason towards this goal(s). Experience and take it all in. Reflect on the process and outcomes.
Tell us a bit about your non-rugby selves?
Ashley: Outside of rugby, I spend a lot of time at my full-time job and working on advocacy issues, I am passionate about LGBTQ+ advocacy within my profession. When I am not working, I try to spend a lot of my time at home with my dogs and my girlfriend or traveling to new places and experiencing different things.
Natalie: Outside of rugby I teach! I try to spend my time teaching people the things I love. I am also an assistant coach for Women's Ice Hockey at the college. I love being a part of the growth and development of women's sports as there is so much talent in this world. Although I don’t have much time with my work schedule, I do enjoy watching sports; Packers football, Rangers hockey and Gotham FC are my teams. If adventure is calling, I am after it (especially in the warm months). I like to go hiking and exploring around the Adirondacks or take my road bike out for a nice ride.