Loyola Womxns’ Rugby Brings Fire and Fun to the Pitch

On Wednesdays, anywhere from 35 to 50 rugby players take to the pitch.

It takes a brave soul to play a sport where getting tackled isn’t a possibility, but a guarantee. It takes an even braver soul to do it on a cold, dark Wednesday night. 

Yet, twice a week at 8 p.m. on Mondays and 6 p.m. on Wednesdays, anywhere from 35 to 50 female and non-binary club rugby players are up to the challenge. They grapple with each other relentlessly, fearlessly facing the notorious Chicago wind. Mercilessly struggling against each other, the players slam into the ground. 

Once the whistle blows, signaling the players to pause their one-on-one drills, the entire pitch breaks out into cheers of joy, littering Hoyne Field with piles of limbs and laughter. 

For head coach Betty Nguyen, this juxtaposition is an integral part of womxn’s rugby’s culture. 

“I think that the great thing about Loyola is whether we win or whether we lose, we’re the team that always has the most fun,” Nguyen said. 

Nguyen said she began coaching Loyola womxn’s rugby team in 2019, ending an extended period where the team had been playing without a coach. Nguyen — a Chicago native who has been a part of the rugby scene since her time as a player at University of Illinois at Chicago — said she took the position after an injury in the summer of 2019 paused her playing career. 

By what Nguyen described as a chance of fate, she ended up refereeing a slew of Loyola’s games back-to-back during a spring 2019 tournament. She said this experience is part of why she applied for the coaching position at Loyola, as the players began to ask her for tips between games. 

“Looking back on it now, it is kind of my first taste of actually coaching the team,” Nguyen said. “They just improved a ton throughout the day. I loved their spirit and just the overall energy of the team.” 

Since Nguyen started at Loyola, the club has nearly doubled in size, garnering many athletes who had never been exposed to rugby before.

Third-year biology major Elle Schilling, the club’s president and one of the team’s captains, had never played rugby until joining Loyola’s team. She said she joined the team after being recruited at Loyola’s Organization Fair, but she became hooked after making the first tackle in her first ever game against the University of Chicago. 

Since that tackle, Schilling said rugby has given her a “community like no other.” 

“You join the team and you automatically have 50 best friends,” Schilling said. “Everybody’s so supportive, on and off the field.”

Fourth-year sociology major Amina Dalal, who joined the team in 2021 in order to become involved on campus after COVID-19, said the rugby community has made a significant mark on her time at Loyola. 

Dalal recalled feeling physically strained during a two-minute plank at her very first practice. Despite the struggle, she said she remembered completing the challenge and being moved by the pride shared by herself and her teammates. 

“I remember realizing that rugby was a place that was gonna challenge me and support me and that I was going to be able to grow a lot as a person and do that within the context of a community,” Dalal said. 

Dalal, who is graduating this semester, was appointed one of the spring captains at their practice on March 27. She said she is ready to take on this new form of leadership as she navigates her last weeks at Loyola. 

“Everything that I’ve learned from rugby will be things that I carry with me throughout my life,” Dalal said. “I hope to join rec leagues wherever I end up. I think it has a lot of translatable skills to other athletics and I hope to always be a part of rugby.” 

Womxns’ rugby has not only made an impact on its veteran players but on its rookies as well. First-year Kiera Reilly said she joined the rugby team because the players at their table called out to her during Loyola’s Sports Fair last fall. She said she wasn’t looking for a new sport, but the welcoming environment reeled her in. 

“I have played team sports my whole life and never been in an environment where there is this much support around you by your teammates,” said Reilly, a political science and history major. “It’s made the biggest impact on my experience.” 

Reilly said she has felt this support on and off the pitch, especially during tough games. She said the team’s competitive spirit and rugby’s physicality sometimes take an emotional toll on players. Reilly recalled seeing teammates cry after a tough game because they gave it their all.

Nguyen said the team’s competitive nature is evident in their success, explaining how in the last two tournaments they have come third in the Great Waters Rugby Conference. They were beaten out by Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, who are the two of the best teams in the nation, according to Nguyen. 

This season, Nguyen said the team’s goal is to get into the top two so they can go to the national tournament. She said this goal is in reach, but the teammates are more concerned about giving everyone — including rookies — playing time rather than about winning. 

“We want to be inclusive, we want to be welcoming, we want to make sure that as many people play as possible,” Nguyen said. “Those are all things that the players have said they want themselves.”

Nguyen praised student leadership on the team for the persistence of this ideology despite the team’s growing roster.  

Shilling said the attitude of student leaders is an important part of the womxn’s rugby team, as a huge part of their job is to keep the mood light in order to make new players feel welcome.  

“No matter what the circumstances or what the score is, you have to get back up and you have to be smiling and you have to have fun,” Schilling said. “Because when it comes down to it, if you’re not having fun then what are you doing?”

Keeping this dedication to fun at the forefront of her mind, Schilling said she is looking forward to a future where rugby remains a constant in her life, even after her time at Loyola comes to an end. 

“I feel like I’ll always remember it very fondly, but also as level one,” Schilling said about her experience on Loyola’s team. “I’ll always love it with all my heart, but there’s definitely more to come.” 

Featured image by Ella Govrik | The Phoenix

Hailey Gates

Hailey Gates