‘We’re all ruggers’
CMU rugby offers a sport for women of all backgrounds
Ariana Ingalls grips the ball tight and prepares to pass out some punishment.
One would-be tackler pummeled, then another, and the stocky Ingalls is motoring down the field. A human wrecking ball on the rugby field.
Then she gets popped and dropped.
But the play goes on, with another player scooping up the ball. That’s the way rugby is played.
Ingalls remains on the ground, gasping for the precious air that was knocked out of her.
She gets up smiling and still gulping in air.
“I like being physical,” she said, a nominee for understatement of the year. “Even if, by society (standards), we’re the weaker (gender), going out there and putting your all on the field and tackling some people is fun.”
The Colorado Mesa University women’s club rugby team is good and physical. This season the team is made up of 32 players, including 23 rookies, like Ingalls.
“I always thought rugby was a cool sport, and I always wanted to play,” she said.
The 18-year-old CMU freshman comes from Johnstown on the Front Range, where she played soccer for 13 years and wrestled for five years, including in high school.
She likes being physical.
“I like all contact sports. I go out there thinking no one is going to stop me,” she said with a grin. “I’m gonna run through all these girls.”
Her words seem to contradict her smiling personality. But her actions on the rugby field are loud and clear. She really likes the physical play.
The CMU team has players of all shapes and sizes, but they all bring the necessary aggression to the field.
Four years ago, Mack Lewis came to CMU to play soccer, but rugby was her sport, so she started the CMU rugby team with her roommate, Bobby Bouchard.
After playing for four years and graduating with a degree in sports broadcasting, Lewis now coaches the team.
“I grew up with three brothers and a sister, so I guess the appeal of rugby comes from being able to hit someone and not get in trouble for it,” she said with a hint of a smile.
Lewis said anyone can play the sport.
“We tell every girl, whether you’re a cheerleader or a hockey player or a volleyball player you can play our sport because we need every size and every shape and every athletic ability,” she said.
A quick scan of the CMU team reveals that exact diversity. From thick thighs and broad shoulders to slight and slender players, it’s truly an all-shapes-and-sizes team.
Stephanie Apodaca is a sophomore from Las Vegas and is one of the smaller players.
“All sizes can play,” she said. “The backs are usually the smaller, faster types, and the forwards are our protectors.”
There’s no doubt rugby is a tough sport and players better be ready for physical play. But Lewis said the sport’s reputation can be deceiving.
“When recruiting, we get a lot of girls that tell us they won’t play because they aren’t tough enough,” she said. “Truthfully, everyone can play rugby. They just need to have heart.”
But the physicality of the sport is evident: hard tackles, aggressive battles in the scrum, and lots of running.
An intense sport
Jackie Stults looks like a natural when it comes to rugby. She wears a leather helmet, her long blonde hair in a ponytail sticking out the back. She’s tall and wiry and played college basketball in Missouri before coming to CMU.
She’s verbal, aggressive, athletic, physical, and her will to win is as intense as it gets in any sport.
“You don’t have to be a rugger to play rugby. At first, you just have to want to win.
“It’s the most appealing sport I’ve ever played. If you want to play a real sport, play rugby,” Stults said emphatically.
She embraces the physicality and intensity of the sport with an unmatched furor.
“You have to be able to run your hardest every time. You have to be able to hit someone your hardest every time. It’s not like, ‘I’ll go soft this time and hit hard next time.’ It’s an every-time sport.”
The senior really likes rugby.
CMU freshman Maggie Griggs played four years of soccer, basketball and cross country at Windsor High School, so she was looking for something to keep her on the competitive playing field.
“I felt like I needed to play something, so I joined the rugby team,” she said. “Rugby by far is the hardest sport I’ve ever played.”
For new players, learning the game and the rules — rugby calls them laws — and the nuances of the sport takes time.
“Rugby is just a complex game,” Lewis says “It’s really a sport that you will never fully learn, and you won’t understand it until you play.”
As the recent 103-0 win over Utah State shows, CMU is a fast-learning bunch of ruggers.
The tough — sometimes thug-like — reputation that many nonplayers associate with the sport may not be exactly right, Lewis said, but it remains a contact sport where injuries happen.
A few players were sporting knee braces and obvious limps on the sidelines, and Lewis, 22, said she walked away from her playing days after her eighth concussion.
Fun but physical sport
Assistant coach Kirsten Miller played on the CMU team for four years. Her sports background during her younger years prepared her for the physical play and toughness of the game.
At 5-foot-2 and rather petite, with blonde hair and a bubbly, smiling demeanor, Miller doesn’t look or sound like a rugger. Except, maybe when she’s screaming instructions and encouragement to players from the sidelines.
The CMU graduate is from the farming town of Hayden, where she played another tough, physical sport.
“I grew up with brothers who always played football,” she said.
She played football in middle school, then she ignored her dad’s wishes and started playing on the 8-man high school team as a sophomore. Despite her size, she was anything but a frail lineman.
“Rugby appealed to me as far as the physical aspect of it,” she said, sporting a scabbed knee she got from practicing with the current players.
Then she laughed and said, “Turns out, tackling girls is a lot easier than tackling boys, even if you are this small.”
Camaraderie makes game great
The camaraderie of the sport is what nearly all players say makes it special.
After the 103-point shellacking, the Utah State players joined CMU’s players for pizza and cookies.
They shared stories and replayed the game as they laughed and joked.
For first-year players Griggs and Mindy McCracken, who is from Dolores, the team environment makes it special.
“I knew women played rugby, but I never thought I would ever play,” McCracken said.
But she finally got up the nerve to sign up.
“The team is a huge family. They took me in and made me feel that I could fit in. They were extremely welcoming,” she said.
Griggs agrees: “They make me feel part of a team ... I feel taken care of with them.”
Stults sheepishly confesses her intensity can be a little too intense at times.
“I’m kind of mean on the field, I yell at everyone,” she said, smiling. “Then off the field, I love my team. In the end, we’re all ruggers.
“I’ve got my team’s backs on and off the pitch,” she added, embracing the language of the sport. “They are my family.”
Miller said the physical aspect of the game puts the sport into the proper perspective — especially when it comes to the female athlete.
“As far as girls go, you can’t play with a better group,” she said of the CMU team. “Girls are usually really catty, but when you can hit each other in practice, it sets the dynamic just right.”
The comment drew a laugh from Miller.
Rugby is a sport for all types of athletes. But the physical nature of the sport is evident throughout the 80 minutes of play.
“(Getting hit) builds adrenalin,” McCracken said. “It just makes me want to kill the next player with the ball.”
She smiles and adds, “It’s not a revenge thing, it’s just a game. At the end of the game, we’re friends. It’s just a game.”
A tough, physical team game.
Nothing understated about that.