By Gabriella Gil
Joining the Women’s Rugby team in the spring of 2015 felt like a puzzle piece clicking into place for me. After coming back from NU.in Dublin, I felt severely out of place on a campus that was meant to be my home for the next four years of my life. Being from California, Boston’s historic winter had me feeling extremely homesick and adjusting to the rigor of Northeastern’s courses was a major struggle for me.
My International Student Advisor from NU.in, Christina Erving, had played for Northeastern Women’s Rugby when she attended school and encouraged a few of us to give it a try when we got to Boston in the spring. I had previously only played softball and had the intention of trying out for the club team, but when a few of my friends from NU.in joined rugby, I just followed along. This decision ended up altering my entire college career. As a senior now, most of my life revolves around rugby, from my roommates and my friends to how I spend all my time outside of classes and co-op.
I am thankful that the most shining aspect of rugby culture, and especially Northeastern Women’s Rugby culture, has always been the willingness of the players to reach out with open arms and provide a friendly and supportive community for all those that need it. Over my past four years here at Northeastern and on the team, we have always strived to keep that one thing the same during times of huge team dynamic shifts.
My year of recruits joined the team after something like 12 seniors had graduated, and we were going to be in a heavy “development” year. After losing so many knowledgeable players from the year before, any rookie that joined the team was almost automatically given a starting spot. There was little to no competitive nature with the roster and, in turn, there was no drive to earn your place. This developmental year turned into two and before we knew it, we had gone two seasons without winning any conference games. We were all pacified with “we played our best” and “we put up a good fight” and any other verbal pat on the back that was given to us at the time. We didn’t need to win matches in order to have a good time. Our mantra those first few years was always “first place in the social” because we were so great at bonding with the teams we had just played against.
As a younger player, this was exciting. I loved the culture and the fun, I didn’t care about winning games or being a decent player on the team. We’d hold team bonding events after every game and it didn’t seem unusual to me that we had yet to show any improvement within a year. I remember one match that we had lost against Boston University had come down to just two points and we just accepted that we played to the best of our ability and told ourselves that it was a feat for us to even come so close to beating them.
It wasn’t until the fall of 2016, and our first conference win against the University of Rhode Island, that everything began to change.
On September 17, we showed up to our match against URI not expecting all that much, but that evening we came home with our first official conference win. This was the first match that I had ever been put in to play a full 80 minutes, so my nerves were off the charts. My memory of what happened during this game is hazy, and most of the players I speak to about it don’t seem to recall much either, except for the excitement we all felt when that final whistle blew — we had won the match.
After the realization that we could actually be a successful rugby team that also knows how to have fun, we finished off the season ending in third place for the Northeast Women’s Collegiate Division I Rugby Conference. Not bad for a team that had finished in last place the year before.
With the shift in attitude about winning came the shift in our team culture. When we grew our Rugby 7s program in the spring of 2016, the starting roster size dropped from 15 to 7 and the level of competition within the team exploded. We built off our foundation of a tight team bond through socializing and hanging out to develop a positive team culture that encouraged self-improvement. Instead of hanging out at someone’s apartment and watching movies like we often did, we spent that time working out together in Marino. When roster selections were made and I did not make the starting side, my friends didn’t just leave me behind. They rallied around me, showed me new workouts to try, and kept pushing me to work harder until I got to make the roster that I wanted to be on. Every player pushed one another to improve and the focus of our team transitioned from being “first place in the social” to being as competitive as possible on the pitch.
Throughout all this change, we still emphasized the importance of kindness and acceptance on the team. In a heavy hitting game like rugby, a teammate has to be someone that you can inherently trust to have your back on, but especially off the pitch.
College is a tough transitional period and being away from home and family is difficult at times. During my sophomore year, I got a call right before rugby practice from my mom that my grandmother was in the hospital because she had fallen and broken her hip. They were going to end her dialysis and let her run out the time. I could either fly home and see her one final time or I could wait and fly home for the funeral. The call left me devastated, but practice gave me a nice distraction that allowed me to clear my head a little bit. Afterwards, my teammates all dropped what they were doing just to come over to my place and keep me company because I didn’t want to be alone.
It’s moments like these that allow you to fully put your trust in each other and help to build a positive chemistry on the field. My teammate is someone who would pick me up off the ground after a hard hit and tell me to get back in the game, but also someone who would take the time to be there to support me when times get tough and life knocks you down.
In the fall of 2017, I took a leave of absence to go back home and spend time with my father who had just been diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. Our fall season was shaping up to be the best one yet, and the excitement around how far we would go was high, which made leaving the team incredibly hard. I had just been voted in as President and had so many ideas for how to improve the logistics of the team, but I had to ultimately make the choice to go home indefinitely. Leaving my team was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, not just because of a promising season, but because it felt like I was leaving my family.
I remember telling my good friend, Hannah Bogich, that I was leaving and she immediately responded with, “Whatever you need, I’ll do it. No matter what.” And so she stepped in as Vice President when she previously had sworn up and down that she would never want to be a part of E-Board, but she didn’t bat an eye when I had asked.
After that moment, I had thought my time with Northeastern women’s rugby was done for good. I went back home to spend time with my father and watched as my team finished out their season. A few months later, I made the decision to return to Northeastern for spring semester in order to finish my degree. Since re-joining my team, I’ve taken back my position as President and we’ve been dominating our fall season. We set a goal to make it to nationals early on this past summer, and now we’re making it happen. We’re making history right now and I am so glad to still be playing alongside my teammates. The years that we spent constantly hanging out together and pushing each other to be our best can be seen in our chemistry on and off the field. Everyone loves playing with each other, that’s what makes it fun and that’s what has helped us to to place second in the Northeast Division I Conference.
Now, as I reflect back on my time with this team, I could not be happier with how much both my teammates and our team have grown. Much of our success would not be possible without the constant help of the club sports program here at Northeastern, to whom we are forever grateful for allowing our players and our sport to thrive. We also would be nowhere without our alumni, who paved the way for us all those years ago and still find the time to help us out now. We have worked tirelessly to mend the team dynamic, shift our focus to rugby, and instill all this in our younger players so when all 14 of our seniors leave after this year, the team isn’t left in the same place it was when I first joined. When I watch our new recruits and younger players take the pitch or interact with each other, I am overwhelmed by the pride I feel to be a part of this team. It’s a bittersweet feeling to know that you’ll be leaving a team that you’ve given so much of your blood, sweat, and time to, but I know that I’ll still be cheering them on from the stands long after even our newest recruits have left.
Rugby is all about getting back up and putting yourself back in the game when you get hit and that’s helped me so much throughout college.
Once a Maddog, always a Maddog.
Gabriella Gil, women’s club rugby
Featured image by Brian Bae.