Dartmouth Elevates Women’s Rugby to Varsity Status

Friday, April 03, 2015
Hanover — The opportunity to bring women’s rugby aboard as Dartmouth College’s 35th varsity sport happened in somewhat sudden fashion, athletic director Harry Sheehy said this week.

The possibility of elevating the club sport to the varsity level began to become public knowledge last fall, but Sheehy said as recently as February that he didn’t foresee it happening in the coming months. However, when the team’s players returned from spring break last weekend, they were asked to attend a Monday meeting with their coaches and athletic department staff, at which the news was presented.

“We’ve had a long discussion here over the last couple of years, but we were very careful because we wanted to be sure we could offer the financial support needed,” Sheehy said. “It got to a point in the last couple of weeks where it became evident we could do it.”

Central to that point was being notified by the NCAA that it would contribute roughly $30,000 under an effort to support “emerging sports” toward the program’s annual costs. Sheehy said he anticipates those will be less than $200,000 per year and added that the college has authorized funds to cover the rest, meaning the athletic department will not have to raise or reallocate money for women’s rugby.

“Any time you’re on the ground floor of something, it’s great,” said Sheehy, adding that Dartmouth’s figure skating club was also considered for elevation to varsity status. “There are only 14 (women’s rugby) varsities in the country and we’re one of them. We’re hoping that the near future holds the opportunity to play for an Ivy League championship.”

Five league schools would have to sponsor the sport for that to happen. Dartmouth is the third, joining Harvard and Brown.

“You can really see the changes in (Harvard and Brown’s) programs,” said Michaela Conway, the Dartmouth club’s student president. “They gave us great competition last fall and we’re stepping into a role as one of the elders in the Ivy League.”

Sheehy said his department will conduct a national search for a head coach and that club coach Deb Archambault, a former Dartmouth rugby and basketball player, told him she plans to apply. Archambault, who did not respond to a phone message this week, has been the club’s fulltime coach since 2006 and has been immersed in the sport since her 1985 graduation.

Archambault was involved in planning and designing the 6,000-square-foot clubhouse opened in 2005 and used by Dartmouth’s men’s and women’s rugby teams. It’s considered one of the best college facilities in the country and contains locker rooms for players and referees, a kitchen, coaches’ offices and a multi-use space. Two fields sit adjacent to the building and all will now be maintained and overseen by the athletic department.

Sheehy said he doesn’t foresee the men’s club, which has long been successful on a national level, moving to varsity status any time soon. Part of the reasoning is that the college must stay balanced with Title IX federal legislation requiring equal sports opportunities for women. Another factor is that the men’s club hasn’t shown much interest in being elevated.

“They’ve been very happy to be a club team,” Sheehy said. “They have excellent coaches and leadership in that program and there’s not any champing at the bit on their part to move up.”

The athletic director said his department was slightly out of compliance with Title IX when he took over in 2010, but has fixed that problem in recent years. He said efforts at retaining more women athletes and roster limits for men’s teams led to a return of the necessary balance.

“We didn’t feel we were in dangerous territory but (adding women’s rugby) strengthens us in that regard,” Sheehy said.

Conway, a senior who plays the lock position and is from suburban Albany, N.Y., said she and several classmates submitted a petition for their team to receive varsity designation last spring.

“It was basically a letter where we expressed why we were interested and why it’s a great fit,” she said. “We knew it was being discussed, but when we sat down for the meeting (on Monday), it was just as big a reveal to us as anyone else.”

Women’s rugby started at Dartmouth in 1978, when the squad went 3-0. It’s progressed to the point of regularly reaching regional and national playoff competition and has a roster somewhere between 30 and 35 players, depending on who’s off campus for international study and internship work.

Whereas the team has been student-organized and run, it will now be administered in the same fashion as any of Dartmouth’s other varsity teams, and will face rising expectations. More will be asked of the students in terms of NCAA compliance, academics, weight and conditioning standards and overall performance.

Conway, however, said she doesn’t anticipate much trouble with the adjustment, which will bring benefits such as being covered by the department’s medical and communications staffs and being involved in the DP2 Peak Performance program, which focuses on factors such as leadership, nutrition, sleep and injury prevention.

“Our team holds itself to a pretty high standard as far as being at practice and competing hard,” she said. “People are really excited about working out harder and having a chance to compete at a higher level.”

With only about five months before the first varsity game, the program’s overhaul is bound to be somewhat rushed and may stretch past the start of the inaugural season. Also up in the air, Conway said, is whether the team will keep its current schedule of playing 15-aside contests in the fall and 7-aside in the spring.

“Everything’s going to be in transition but the whole department seems excited and willing to help us make it,” she said.

Dartmouth will be the 14th member of the National Collegiate Varsity Women’s Rugby Association. Its members include American International, Army, Bowdoin, Brown, Central Washington, Eastern Illinois, Harvard, Norwich, Notre Dame College (Ohio), Quinnipiac, Sacred Heart, the University of New England and West Chester.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.