Women’s club rugby readies for NCAA title game

Ben Goessling

In order to play for a championship, a sports team must possess many qualities – talent, chemistry and determination, to name a few.

A good hot dog sales pitch, however, isn’t usually one of them.

Minnesota’s women’s club rugby team will take the field at the National Sports Center in Blaine on Saturday to play Northern Iowa for the NCAA Women’s Division II national championship, making this team the first since Minnesota’s 1988 national champions to advance to the title game.

But Minnesota has traveled a much different road to Saturday’s game than their opponent and archrival. As a club sport, the Gophers have been forced to finance their season solely through fundraising.

“We spend a lot of time selling hot dogs at the Metrodome,” said senior captain Jenny Hughes. “Every day (this season) we didn’t have class, we’d be out trying to raise money. It gets to be a lot of work.”

Rugby at Northern Iowa is also a club sport, but the Panthers receive sponsorship from the school, meaning they benefit from added practice time and better facilities than Minnesota’s weed-choked field behind the St. Paul Student Center.

And the extra support has paid off, as Northern Iowa’s men’s team will also play for a national championship this weekend. The Panthers’ defending national champion women’s team is ranked first in the country and has not allowed a point in the NCAA Tournament.

Minnesota’s road to the championship game, on the other hand, has been more arduous. The seventh-seeded Gophers upset second-ranked Cal-State Sacramento and third-seeded Mary Washington to reach the finals.

Minnesota played Northern Iowa earlier this season, losing 15-10 as the Panthers broke a 10-10 tie with a late try. But senior Allison Hanig is confident the Gophers can pull off one more upset this weekend.

“We’re really excited to show them what we have,” she said. “It’s been closer every time we’ve played them, and I think we’ve got the momentum.”

A win this weekend could cause the University to take another look at making rugby a varsity sport. Women’s rugby lost a close fight with women’s rowing for varsity status four years ago, but is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country at the high school and collegiate level.

Head coach Martha Daines hopes a victory this weekend would cause the University to revisit the possibility of varsity status for rugby so her team can continue to grow.

“Being in the Midwest, it’s harder to schedule games that are competitive,” she said. “There are some good teams around here, but the team would have to start playing around the country to get better.”

Daines’ players would like to see the sport receive financial support so they can concentrate on rugby rather than fundraising.

But they won’t be discouraged as long as there’s a game to play.

“I just want to play rugby,” Hughes said. “We have so much fun playing, and if we have to continue raising money to keep our team going, we will.”

Win or lose, the Gophers will gather Saturday night for a barbecue to celebrate the work they put in this season both on and off the field to advance to the national championships.

Appropriately, the food of choice will be hot dogs.

Ben Goessling welcomes comments at [email protected]