RUGBY GRIPS NOVA
Between 75-80,000 students report to one of six Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) campuses every year, and new this semester, the Nighthawks now have a women’s rugby program. Rooted in the Loudoun location, the team is building numbers and readying for its first game this weekend, with hopes of joining the Capital collegiate conference next year.
Mike McMillon is an NVCC Student Life Specialist at Loudoun, and has played, administered and coached rugby for 14 years now.
“One thing that students come to me with, year after year, is [requests for] more access to recreation, fitness or athletics,” McMillon said. “I know rugby a little bit and am passionate about it, so last spring I created an eight-week Rugby Student Leadership Program. That really helped build the community, offered a fitness opportunity and helped develop skills that are great to have in life: communication, teamwork, trust. I used rugby as the template to teach all of those things.”
Rugby got some visibility through the co-ed touch program, and the women expressed interest for a full-fledged team. The athletics department wasn’t interested in taking on rugby but that’s not to say there wasn’t administrative support.
“I mostly work with the dean of students and campus provost, and they’ve been very supportive from the beginning,” McMillon said. “They want to see all of our students have opportunities outside of the classroom to develop, compete and have a community where they can feel safe and included. So we’ve had a ton of support in that regard.”
Loudoun also has “more space than we could know what to do with,” McMillon said of field availability, so there was no tension there. Finding the bodies became the next big task and spring veteran Gracie Carter stepped up as VP of Recruitment.
“My job is trying to get girls on campus to know what we’re about,” Carter said. “It’s been really fun just talking about it. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never played a sport before, or never even seen or watched rugby. Most girls who come to a practice and watch, they end up playing. A month ago, we started with six players that first week, and now we have 30 who come at least once a week.”
Why do people stay?
“It’s how inclusive the team is,” Carter answered. “Everybody comes from different backgrounds and we all have different personalities, but at the end of the day, we all share common goals and want to have fun outside of class.”
Carter never played rugby before, nor have any of her Nighthawks teammates.
“I think it’s the most unique challenge, because you’re used to coaching some new players but usually there’s a bulk of players who know what’s going on,” said McMillon, who brought on New Zealander Amy Vincent as assistant coach. “It’s already the most exciting coaching position I’ve ever taken on. All these people are so eager to learn and grow in something new, and it makes it really fun for me. The potential for a college system our size and the amount of athletes who come out of high school looking for an opportunity – so much can be done, and I’m excited to be a part of the beginning.”
While the Nighthawks focus on learning the game, building numbers and establishing team bonds, they’re also showing the Capital collegiate conference that they’d make a good addition next year. This weekend, NVCC plays its first-ever game against new senior club D.C. Revolution, and then on Nov. 9, the Nighthawks play first-year Alderson Broaddus, a non-NCAA varsity program in West Virginia.
“It’s more of excitement [than anxiety],” Carter said of first-game vibes. “We just don’t know what to expect because we haven’t played a real game against another team yet, but no one’s scared. We’ve been doing a lot of drills and practices, and Mike says that once the first game happens, we’ll learn a lot from it.”
McMillon attributes the team’s current success to the students who have stepped into leadership roles and will turn the program into a self-sustaining, competitive entity. Beyond NVCC, the coach sees additional opportunity.
“Students come to us for a lot of different reasons,” McMillon began. “If the rugby team can provide opportunities after they leave – whether it’s through senior clubs we play who can then help with jobs when they leave, or connect with a varsity program and let them know that we have a program and will get stronger – then our students might want to attend a four-year school after they leave here or have an opportunity for a varsity program or even get a scholarship.”
In the meantime, the Nighthawks are going to enjoy the opportunity to stretch their legs, form new friendships and grow in a competitive environment. For more information on the Nighthawks, click here.