By Dylan Powell, Head Sports Writer
Photos taken by Phoebe McCutcheon, Photographer and Designer
In February of 2020, McKendree University introduced rugby as the next addition to the University’s athletic department. Since then, the program has endured a lot, from an inaugural season filled with COVID-19 concerns to coaching changes. Despite these circumstances, the players have stood strong and continued to persevere, with the men going 8-4-1 in the spring of 2021 including a 6-win streak to end their season. The women’s team went on a similar streak, going 5-0 on their season. Now, these athletes are looking to make a similar, if not better run in 2022.
This week, I had the pleasure to speak with members of the program about their goals and visions for the men’s and women’s teams this season. A message that was relayed by the players was simple: We want people to know more about rugby. “Rugby is still a growing sport in the U.S., so the number of players that continue to the college level is significantly lower than for soccer or football,” said Bridget Luke, freshman flanker for the women’s rugby team.
If you know about rugby, the message also stated that it is incomparable to other sports. Bridget Luke said, “I continued with rugby because the team environment is unmatched to any other sport I’ve played. You are forced to get to know everyone since that is what’s important on and off the field.” Sophomore Captain of the women’s team Phoebe McCutcheon had a similar statement, saying “The rugby team is filled with kind and dedicated people that welcome anyone with open arms! Anyone with any sort of athletic history, none or very little can learn about the basics of rugby.”
Both teams are excited for their start on February 26, with a tournament being released on their schedule soon. They begin their season with a new coach, Cameron Wyper, who was hired in August of 2021. Wyper is the former Academy Director and Mental Skills Coach for Rugby ATL.
We asked some players about expectations with a new season and coach, and their focus is to win games, along with establishing a culture that will stick around for seasons to come. One goal that leads up to this plan is “Becoming closer as a team and hopefully winning a couple of games as well,” says Allison Demuth, sophomore on the women’s team. For others, it’s about playing their first set of games in over two years, such as Bridget Luke. “Personally, for me that will be the first time I play a game since my senior year of high school (2020) because of Covid, so I am slightly nervous. I already know it’s going to be tons of fun though. Everyone on the team is excited for it!”
One of the closing questions I had the opportunity to speak with the players about was regarding what people need to know about this young program. It was mentioned that both teams are looking for more players to recruit to the program! For players like Phoebe McCutcheon, it was easy to get into the sport by making friends with those on a rugby team. “I was approached by an older student asking if I wanted to learn more about the sport,” said the captain. “I knew nothing about rugby before then and my mom and I thought it would be fun to learn more. I was informed of the women’s team and their need for players and decided I would give a new sport a try!”
Same goes for Allison Demuth: “I got into it from the girl who lived next door (Phoebe McCutcheon) who is now my roommate and best friend.” If there are former athletes or students interested, this is your chance to make a move towards learning the game, and potentially playing it.
Overall, speaking with the rugby team was eye-opening. It taught me a lot about the game, and about the needs the program is facing at this time. We wish our Bearcats and Coach Wyper the best of luck on February 26 and with the rest of their season!