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.
#6 Scholarships cannot be our #1 reason to play HS rugby The majority of teens join team sports to be with friends, to make friends, to find a sense of belonging, or perhaps to answer questions about themselves through a challenge. Few join with a scholarship as their #1 priority. Some do; some move towards this goal as they mature as well.
If our #1 mission is to get kids to play college varsity rugby, we are doing a disservice to a significant number of young people whose lives change through team sports participation. Our mission is to offer every kid an experience to grow in their confidence now. High school coaches and teams can help every young person, whatever kind of athletic goals they may have, to participate and be part of something meaningful. There are a lot of young athletes who need rugby to find themselves, their confidence, and to help lead healthier lives. Certainly the opportunity for collegiate varsity rugby is going to be there for the truly great athletes with motivation.
Varsity collegiate rugby has changed the perception of the sport and we needed this. It’s increasingly being seen as a safe, rewarding pursuit. We are seeing athletes consider rugby over other sports more than they ever have before. For those who need the financial aid rugby can offer, rugby opens up life-changing doors to higher education and provides even more motivation to be a good student and hard-working athlete. #7 Flexibility in subs We have an open sub policy once a score gets to a 30-point differential and in JV games. We want to encourage more kids to be able get on the field whenever possible and avoid lopsided scores when younger players could be developed more. Being a participation sport instead of a sport where five kids sit on the bench and never get in the game, is something for coaches to be conscious of.
#8 Socials are a must For league games, home teams always feed the visitors. This has helped build relationships among coaches, families, and players. It’s unique in the regular high school sports world and sets us apart with the uniquely positive set of values rugby can offer. It’s a part of the experience that most stands out for new families and school administrators. It gets parents more invested in the program and the league.
#9 We tried Friday games for a while but avoid them for the time being These proved challenging for a few reasons. Distance and daylight can be a challenge. A lot of teens work Friday evening jobs. Some teams struggled with a lot of kids in school band having to attend high school football games. Many kids simply want to attend their high school football games and not miss out on high school stuff. Many teams now avoid regular Friday games as we found they hurt playing numbers overall.
#10 It’s always about the kids I’ve never been a part of a great program that didn’t have great kids leading. Some of the most important kids on teams, some of the social leaders, the strategic leaders, the physical leaders are often not great athletes. Find ways to step aside and let them lead. Find ways to keep it their team and let the experience be theirs to own. I’ve heard it said great leadership inspires other leaders. Our most successful eras as a league and for individual programs is when positive leadership can be seen from people throughout those organizations. Our hardest years as a league and a program are when we struggle with leadership.
#11 All-Stars/Select Side teams* We have had player representation from nearly every team in our league over the past handful of years, fielding two complete sides at various Regional Cup Tournaments around the country. Moreover, the Select-Side teams while under the umbrella of a head coach from outside the league, are coached by a crew of the league's own coaches who represent 4-5 Wisconsin teams. This team dynamic has taken time to build, but we are really seeing the benefits of all the hard work. Besides great recent success at both the JV and Varsity levels, our girls enjoy the inter-team friendships that develop through select sides. The practices and competitions give the girls who are already leaders on their respective teams the chance to observe other player-leaders in action. This allows them to share positive practices with their own squads.
* Comments compiled by Alexandra Glorioso, Wisc u19 asst, MW u23 Asst Coach, CMH Asst. and league treasurer; and Chris Kurth, Oak Creek HS coach and former league president
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.