‘It’s Our Field of Dreams’: Rugby Gains Following at Vermont Law School

Thursday, October 09, 2014
South Royalton — Vermont Law School isn’t exactly renowned for its athletic options, yet club rugby is available for anyone willing to try.

Welcoming to those with and without experience in the sport — in fact, one doesn’t even have to be a student or alumnus of the school to participate — VLS fields men’s and women’s independent club teams that play in the fall and spring. Their home, leased by the school, is a picturesque field abutting a cornfield and a branch of the White River north of South Royalton village where the teams host an annual tournament.

Club teams from Albany Law School (men and women) and the Tuck School of Business (men only) are scheduled to play in this year’s tourney on Oct. 18. It’s typically the season finale for VLS, though the men’s side will play a rescheduled game against Tuck on Nov. 1.

“It’s one of the big things in the fall we look forward to,” men’s player Mike Campinell said. “It’s usually a good turnout and always a good time.”

Added Alex Belonis, a third-year VLS student and team captain: “We get to show everyone where we play, behind a cornfield. It’s our field of dreams.”

The vast majority of this year’s players — about 18 per side — had never sniffed at a rugby ball before joining the team.

Some, such as women’s player Olympia Bowker, were three-sport athletes in high school and jumped on board with VLS rugby as a way to stay physically active while engaged in the school’s academic curriculum.

Others, such as women’s co-captain Morgan Connor, had never played sports and simply wanted to test themselves in a new realm. Connor, of West Hartford, graduated from VLS in 2011 and began playing competitive team sports for the first time when she linked up with the VLS women’s team as a 31-year old.

“It’s a great group of women to learn the game together with,” said Connor, who plays in the front row. “There’s a position for everybody, no matter what your skills or physical abilities are. I’ve never been super agile or fast, but I’ve always been strong and had a lot of endurance. So there are some things I can do, and some things the smaller, faster girls can do.”

Even if they’re stacked up against a much more experienced team — such as Manchester-based Amoskeag, a New England Rugby Football Union side that manhandled VLS during a bye-week exhibition Oct. 4 — they manage to enjoy themselves.

“If you play the game the right way, it’s not as rough as you think,” said Connor, who sustained a minor leg injury against Amoskeag. “You’re mostly using your legs to move the ball. I’ve looked at statistics, and there’s a lot fewer head injuries with rugby than a sport like football.”

Rugby at VLS has been rewarding thus far for Mark Smith, a former high school and college football player who didn’t expect such an outlet for the sport when he came to South Royalton. He doubled as a high school wrestler and track and field athlete in Binghamton, N.Y., before playing football at NCAA Division III Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y.

“The whole experience has been very positive,” he said. “You don’t really think you’re going to be doing something like this at law school, but it’s been pretty awesome.”

Generating consistent commitment for the teams’ twice-per-week practices can be challenging. Typically 10-20 players show up, sometimes not enough for intra-squad scrimmages. Albany Law School, Boston’s Suffolk University and Tuck have become “sister schools” for scheduling games.

“It’s always a hard balance between school and everything else going on, especially for guys who have work and families,” Campinell said. “You end up working with other graduate schools to try to schedule games. We’re fortunate to have a some pretty committed guys.”

For Bowker, a former multi-sport athlete at Massachusetts’ Bromfield School — “I played pretty much everything but rugby,” she said — the sport provides a much-needed respite from her studies. “I thought I’d basically be reading books for three years,” she joked.

Aside from its physical and social benefits, Connor said, VLS rugby is great for the resume. She’s a general practice and real estate lawyer for a Ludlow, Vt.-based firm and said she landed the job through contacts stemming from the team.

“It’s the reason I have the job I do,” she said. “It’s excellent for the resume, because it makes you stand out. Every resume (lists) skills, but when you have something like this on there, it lets people know you’re a real person with hobbies and interests, someone they want to get to know.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at 603-727-3306 and jpendak@vnews.com.

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