Considering that most of the 27 active members of the NIU Women’s Rugby Club had never played the sport – or even heard of it – before attending NIU, it’s even more impressive that the team is currently celebrating one of their best seasons since the club’s inception in 1996.
Most of the players say their first experience with rugby happened the day they took to the field for practice at the Outdoor Recreation Sports Complex, where the team meets four nights a week to prepare for the conference games they play every Saturday. NIU finished the season 5-1, just short of the University of Minnesota’s 6-0 record, so Minnesota won the division and got an automatic bid to the national tournament. NIU has applied for an at-large bid to the tournament and is waiting to hear back.
Coach Thomas Petit said the team’s “open-minded and eager to learn approach” is why they continue to get better every year.
Petit has been involved in rugby for decades, having played for Western Illinois University in the 1980s and then for a club in Aurora. In 2004, he helped found a team at Sycamore High School, eventually expanding that to girls and middle school students. He was recently among 15 coaches nationwide selected for a scholarship to travel to England for training in 2018.
“The best thing about the sport is that it welcomes all, no questions asked,” Petit said. “We are an option for anyone who may consider themselves a misfit in any way. Rugby gives them a home, fitness and a sense of belonging because the individual athlete is secondary to the team at all times.”
Tariana Sandkam, a senior nursing major from Buffalo Grove, IL, said being part of the Women’s Rugby Club has been a formative part of her NIU experience.
“It has provided me with roommates, best friends and a support system that serves as a home away from home,” she said.
The team members use the phrase “15 as 1” to signify that even though there are 15 individual players on the field at a time, they play as one unit. Sandkam said that mentality has allowed the group to form a tight bond.
“Without rugby, I am not sure I would have the sanity and time management skills I currently have, which I am sure other girls would agree with,” she said.
Sandkam said that almost everyone on the team learned the sport by watching national games during team bonding nights and by teaching each other fundamentals.
“We all eventually got the hang of it, and it is amazing to see how far I have personally come since first joining three years ago,” she said. “Our team really teaches new members how to play from start to finish- we start with simple passing and make our way down to tackling and playing scrimmage games.”