Womxn’s Rugby rejoins league after year of rebuilding

Cleo Welch, (Sophomore) Emily Wills, (Sophomore) and Kaiah Callahan (Junior) share big smiles as they recruit people for the Womxn’s Rugby team at the involvement fair at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022. Alexia Lara/The Occidental

After lockdown and a year of rebuilding, the Womxn’s Rugby team is rejoining the Pacific Desert Rugby Conference (PDRC). Team co-presidents, Ellie McKinney (senior) and Kaiah Callahan* (senior), said they came to the decision over the summer — one that was made with their younger teammates in mind.

“We want to make sure we’re leaving this generation with the knowledge of how to go about joining the league,” Callahan said.

Before the pandemic, Callahan said the team had strong ties with the PDRC, forged over many years of playing the game. When McKinney joined the team in the fall of 2019, she said they were strong and more competitive — the team played in the National Collegiate Rugby 7s National Tournament in Pittsburgh, PA. in April 2018.

However, when the pandemic brought the world to a halt in March 2020, rugby was just another activity that hit pause, according to e-board member and prop Amaryllis Argueta (senior). By the time students returned to campus in Fall 2021, Callahan said the team saw a significant decrease in both numbers and skill level.

“It had been so long since most of us who were returning had played and we had so many people graduate. Just the amount of experience on the team was pretty low,” Callahan said.

According to Callahan and coach Malek Moazzam-Doulat, this inexperience and lack of numbers informed the team’s decision to not play in the league last year. According to Callahan, rugby is an injury-prone sport, and it is important to have a strong foundation and knowledge of the game to avoid serious injury.

Thus, 2021-2022 became what Moazzam-Doulat — who is a Critical Theory & Social Justice professor at Occidental — and the team refers to as a rebuilding period. According to Moazzam-Doulat, the team was practically starting from scratch when they returned to campus in Fall 2021. They spent the year finding new players to replace those who had graduated and prioritizing strength and conditioning training.

Womxn’s Rugby team playing in their first scrimmage against UCLA’s Women’s Rugby team at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Feb. 11, 2023. Dylan Herbert/The Occidental.

By the summer of 2022, the team agreed it was time to rejoin the league. McKinney said the decision was informed by the desire to leave her younger teammates with a knowledge of what it was like to play competitively.

“We wanted to at least make sure that when we left the team that the underclassmen, a new leadership, knew what their options were,” McKinney said.

Ellie McKinney (senior) talks about an exciting upcoming season for the Womxn’s Rugby team on the Hameetman Career Center Patio at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Feb. 7, 2023. Dylan Herbert/The Occidental.

According to Callahan, the process of rejoining the PDRC was entirely student led. At the college, the Womxn’s Rugby team is a club under the office of Student Leadership, Involvement and Community Engagement (SLICE) — so while coaches are there to guide the students, Moazzam-Doulat said the players run the team.

As the club’s co-presidents, Callahan and McKinney said they spearheaded the administrative process, which included registering students with USA Rugby, certifying their coaches and finding field space. Another key step was negotiating with the league about the safest way for them to rejoin, Callahan said.

Because Occidental is a smaller school and the team is still rebuilding, Callahan said she and McKinney made the decision to join the league as a social rather than competitive team — an option that is new this year. According to Callahan, competing in the social bracket allows the team greater flexibility in who and how they play, while still providing what matters most: the experience.

“There’s just that acknowledgement that we’re coming from a slightly different place than [teams at bigger schools]” Callahan said. “We get to kind of say, ‘Hey, we don’t have enough players today, can you give us some players?’ Or ‘we haven’t had quite enough practices yet. I don’t know if this is going to be safe for us to play a full 80-minute game. Can we play 60 instead?’”

Womxn’s Rugby team played in an exciting first scrimmage against UCLA’s women’s team on the grass fields at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Feb. 11, 2023. Dylan herbert/The Occidental.

As the team becomes more competitive this year, Callahan said they are holding onto the social and community side of the sport too.

“We care about each other first,” said fundraising chair and scrum-half Cleo Welch (sophomore). “Maintaining a safe space and an inclusive and diverse space comes before having a bunch of matches.”

Callahan said competition and community go hand-in-hand in rugby, and the team is keeping this in mind as they look towards the future of the team.

“I think our energy, even though we’re competing this year, is much more focused on building up the team and learning and just enjoying the game,” Callahan said.

womxn's rugby
Womxn’s Rugby at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. March 4, 2022. Ethan Dulaney/The Occidental

According to Moazzam-Doulat, this social aspect is as important to the game as competition — not just for the Womxn’s Rugby team at Occidental — but for teams around the world.

“Rugby teams in much of the world belong to clubs in a broad sense — they are a community athletic club,” Moazzam-Doulat said via email. “We run our club on that model. We are a social club, a very caring and tight-knit community. There is an ethics of care and support, there is a sense of mutual responsibility, and we also take our rugby very seriously.”

*Kaiah Callahan is a current copy editor for The Occidental.

Contact Claire O’Callahan at ocallahan@oxy.edu.