Rugby makes NCAA debut.

For women, a far-reaching first in sports

Posted: September 15, 2007

When fans show up today in the parking lot at Lakeside Field in Charleston, Ill., they will follow the normal September Saturday ritual: tailgating, waving the colors of their favorite teams, and watching a contact sport involving an oblong ball.

They will also be witnesses to history.

That's because 21 women from West Chester University, among others, will be part of the first NCAA-sanctioned women's rugby game. The Golden Rams will play Eastern Illinois.

Although nearly 350 colleges and universities have women's rugby clubs - teams that are financially independent of the school - West Chester and Eastern Illinois are two of only four that sponsor (and support) the sport at the NCAA level.

And it's not just the fact that this is the NCAA debut of women's rugby or that players from both teams will sign the game ball for display at the NCAA Hall of Champions in Indianapolis.

This contest is also expected to have a long-term impact on increasing athletic opportunities for women and help college administrators solve their compliance issues under Title IX, the law that bans sex discrimination at schools receiving federal funds.

"This shows athletic directors that it's a growing sport," said Rebecca Carlson, NCAA emerging sports program manager for USA Rugby. "It's a means of opportunity, plain and simple. I'm not just talking about the players on the field. It's the little girl in middle school who says, 'I want to do this.' That's who we're speaking to even louder than the women on the field."

Host Eastern Illinois, the only Division I rugby program, expects between 1,000 and 1,500 people to attend today's game. The university pep band will be on hand, and the first 250 fans will receive a poster commemorating the day.

Women's rugby is one of the NCAA's seven emerging sports, a program begun to identify sports that can provide more participation opportunities and scholarships to women. The sport must show growth and progress over time, with the ultimate goal to reach 40 teams, the number needed to conduct an NCAA championship.

West Chester, which competes in Division II in all sports except field hockey, elevated women's rugby, one of its 14 sports for women and 24 overall, to NCAA status in 2004. Athletic director Edward Matejkovic said the attraction was that more than 40 women took part in the rugby club.

The numbers helped the university get more in compliance with Title IX, under which participation rates are supposed to match attendance rates. Matejkovic said West Chester's enrollment is between 58 to 60 percent women.

"When I got here 12 years ago, the number was flipped the other way" in athletics participation, he said. "Now it's probably 53 percent women and 47 percent men. You need to be within 3 percent, and we're pretty close."

Tony DeRemer, West Chester women's rugby coach, said the hope was for other schools in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, of which the Golden Rams are members, to promote their rugby clubs to the varsity level. But that hasn't happened.

"We hoped we could show them what we've done with the program," DeRemer said. "Most schools have Title IX issues, and we hoped what we did would come to light."

Matejkovic said the university's athletic department and the individual programs have to raise money for scholarships because using state funding and student fees for such grants are prohibited under the rules of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which counts West Chester and 13 other universities as members. He said scholarship allotments must be proportional to participation rates, which means women's programs usually get more help from the general fund.

Carlson, a former player and assistant coach at Eastern Illinois, said potential sponsors are expected to be in attendance today, and she predicted that they would be attracted to a sport "that combines the athleticism and grace of soccer, the speed of track, and the power of football."

Whitney Hartshorne, a graduate of West Chester Henderson High and the all-time leading scorer in West Chester University history, said the game will help dispel the idea that rugby is a brutal sport.

"I hope this game shows people that we're not a bunch of ruffians who just want to let off some steam," she said. "We love the game. We hope we're starting something that future girls will be able to start at a younger age and play on the varsity level."

"You are taught how to tackle and taught how to hit," teammate Steph Burkhardt said. "You have as much of a chance of getting hurt in this sport as any other, not any more of a chance."

Today's game will be taped for later showing on the College Sports Television network. DeRemer hopes that will encourage interested athletic administrators to view the game.

"A lot of athletic directors have not been accepting of rugby," he said. "But I hope that with this game, we can present rugby in a positive way. It's becoming more mainstream, and I hope people are going to get word of it."


Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com.

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