A coach in another state asked, "What is it that works for you," in reference to the Wisconsin Girls Rugby (WGR) high school league.
It took me some time to put my thoughts together as it has been 21 years since my little sister convinced me to help her start the first high school girls team in Wisconsin. She was tired of watching my brother and I play and figured she should be able to do this too. Every successful team since that first season happened because of enthusiastic young athletes leading the way. So many people were a part of this; I just happened to be one involved from the beginning.
I’m also reminded that a lot of things didn’t work well. Coaching is never easy. Running a league is challenging, maybe more so in a new sport with constantly evolving structures. Shared below are some things that work for us. This is not to say it’s the only way or the right way for a different place and time.
#1 You’ve got to start somewhere
Our first team began in 1997 with six girls and was immediately approved as a school club, partly because a teacher worked in the building and was well respected by administration. Having coaches in the building made it work. There was no one to play against, so they played touch, and eventually played a 15s match against a Minnesota team that drove down at the end of the school year.
For these first three years, the team played 2-3 10s or 15s games against high school girls teams out of state (Indiana mostly) and 2-3 games against college b-sides.
You can’t get away with playing college sides anymore. USA Rugby prohibits it, and health and safety issues arise with parents and the school administration.
#2 Set the tone with single-community teams
Another team started when a girl transferred to another school. We gently suggested she start her own team instead of commuting to play. We asked her, “How would it feel if you were responsible for starting a team like you are on now?” It worked. Same thing happened with a player from our third-oldest team who attended another school. Had we pushed to keep those girls with their original teams, wonder where the league would be now.
This worked because coaches from the first team were willing to split off from an established team to start their own.
A fourth team started when three teammates graduated their women’s college program and teamed together to start their own program. Starting with a full staff and coaching with friends drove their success. In three years we had enough teams to play each other home and away and have a full season locally.
Many of our teams are single-community teams. Even if schools do not yet officially recognize them as school programs, we have more teams, more rapport with families as a result, and there's more potential to fall under school umbrellas as family support grows. Good relationships with schools and parks and recreation departments open up access to facilities and well developed communication structures to reach even more families.
These relationships take time. It took seven years before my team became an official school program. The support of families in the community and a positive track record built school acceptance. While this program was centered around one school initially, some players joined from a nearby school, and then they split off to form two school programs. The number of participants increased significantly with school recognition. A significant factor in this was a more convenient practice location. Making it easy for freshmen in high school to get to a practice makes a difference.
WGR started two newly recognized school programs in the fall 2017 and each had 24+ registered players. One has a coach teaching in the building. The other team's coach is the mother of an underclassman.
#3 Playing a fall 15s season has benefits:
We get girls interested early in the school year. Girls try rugby before other school sports. They inevitably compare the quality of the experience. They can recruit friends all school year long. Starting a spring-only team may give you less of a window to recruit; sometimes just as rugby gains popularity and gets noticed, the kids depart for summer when it’s harder to communicate and harder to get together.
For us, fall rugby builds momentum with a more consistent practice time and game schedule with fewer conflicts and breaks like Easter, prom, graduation and exams. There’s far less miserable weather.
We aren’t competing with boys high school rugby by playing fall. This opens up field time and ref assignments.
We often play Saturday mornings. Sometimes the same ref will do a girls game, then a club/college game in the afternoon at the same field. Some teams share resources with a men’s club that plays at the same field later the same day. We set up; they take down.
Having a fall and spring season helps a growing sport. Girls who were into one sport, like softball, could still come out and try rugby in their other season. It definitely helps us grow.
#4 Coaches are the most valuable resource we have, so make it easier for them.
Our league pumps funds back into the coaches; without them nothing works. Each program in our league gets a fund for coaching developmental to cover USA certification clinics or any professional development they are interested in. Being a head coach is a huge responsibility both in time and legal liability. We look for ways to help minimize the reasons to say no to taking that on.
We’ve been blessed to have two decades under our belt as a league. We have had over a dozen league coaches and administrators who played in our league back in high school. They are giving back. The next step we need to take is to get alumni involved in refereeing.
#5 Retention is at least as important in strong programs, if not more important, than initial recruitment.
A great coach should judge themselves on how many players return to their team next season, not on how many all-stars they’ve coached. Retention reflects team culture and the quality of experience individuals receive.
It takes a lot of effort to get a new kid to a practice. Once we invest some time in them, we don’t want to lose that investment. Turnover is noticeably higher on teams that struggle.
Protecting freshmen by playing JV 7s, open subs in lopsided matches, and good, positive coaching that leads to safe technique and positive team culture helps create a meaningful experience and more long-term participation. Having a healthy league and culture pays dividends.
STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO
John Waliszewski is the current head coach of Wisconsin state champion Catholic Memorial High School, a team he started in 2007. Waliszewski also helped start Divine Savior Holy Angels, the current national single-school champion, in 1997, Kettle Morraine in 2000 and the Wisconsin U19s in 2000.