When a team has its sights set on capturing that big win in the final moments, the brightest stars are usually the ones who step out onto the field.
But for the Ithaca Avengers women’s rugby team, veterans and rookies alike share the spotlight in each game.
Flanker Wendy Hankle, a writer for Ithaca’s Institutional Advancement Communications Department, said the phrase “too many hands in the pot” does not apply to the Avengers.
“We want to win games, but if you totally stink you’re still going to get to play,” Hankle said. “If you come to practice and you completely don’t know what you’re doing and can’t catch a ball, you’re still going in to the game on Sunday.”
Hankle had seen rugby on TV prior to joining the Avengers, but never played the sport. She said the team’s inclusive nature was what piqued her interest.
“It really takes everyone on the team to be successful, and that was cool for me coming from a background of playing volleyball or softball where there’s always this instant where you have to perform in a really outstanding way,” Hankle said.
The Avengers’ roster is made up of an eclectic group ranging from women in their 20s who are still finishing college to mothers in their 40s. Nearly half of the players who showed up to preseason practices this season had never played rugby before, but the team has developed a sense of continuity on the field in their short existence.
The players were constantly communicating on the field while players on the bench shouted encouragement from the sidelines during the team’s 40-15 season-opening victory against the Renegades, the college’s women’s club rugby team, Saturday at Higgins Stadium.
Head Coach Annemarie Farrell, who is also chair of the Department of Sport Management and Media at the college, spends entire games giving her players feedback with a quick-witted sense of humor that kept them relaxed on the pitch.
Just two years ago, Farrell met with six other rugby players at the Ale House in downtown Ithaca to discuss the creation of an independent women’s rugby team — the Avengers were born soon after.
Farrell said the original idea was to fill a void in Ithaca’s rugby scene that was created when the Avengers’ predecessors, the Iguanadons, folded in 2002. She said she wanted to start an independent team in Ithaca because she was on a hiatus from coaching rugby.
“There were a couple of alums from Cornell who wanted to start a team, and I was at this interesting juncture where I was done coaching Cornell and before I coached the Ithaca men’s team,” she said. “And so it was just a number of factors that came together and been even more successful than I would have predicted at the beginning.”
What began as an idea between seven people downtown quickly formed into a burgeoning rugby powerhouse. Soon the Avengers had several dozen women show up to their weekly practices at Eastern Heights Park and scrimmages against Cornell University’s women’s club rugby team every Thursday at the Cornell Rugby Pitch.
Hankle said that in rugby physicality continues well after first contact.
“Compare rugby to football where the quarterback throws the ball, a guy catches it and gets tackled, and then everybody goes back to the huddle and talks about their feelings,” she said. “In rugby, when the guy gets tackled, that’s when things just start to get good.”
Farrell said another reason why rugby is gaining popularity in Ithaca is its role as a physical outlet for every one of its players.
“Rugby is one of only four sports that has the same rules for men and women,” Farrell said. “And so I think when you give women the chance to play a contact sport where they are allowed to be physical and aggressive, there’s just such an interesting niche for that.”
Wing player Mary Buehler, an administrative assistant in the School of Health Sciences and Human Performance, had played rugby at the college, but said she was surprised by how much she learned from Farrell about the game.
“I couldn’t believe how much fun I was having and how much I was learning about rugby that I didn’t know when I played in college,” Buehler said. “It was pretty amazing to see people who had never played rugby before grow so fast and learn so much — and that’s a credit to our coach.”
In just two years, the Avengers have risen to become one of the most elite independent rugby teams in the Northeast. The team is the two-time defending champion of the Philadelphia Sevens Open and was a semifinalist at this past summer’s Can-Am tournament, the largest rugby tournament in the Western Hemisphere. They also beat a Canadian all-star team.
The Avengers make sure that they give just as much effort off the pitch to help the Ithaca community as they exert in their games. Buehler was appointed as the team’s first community service coordinator this past summer. She said it was essential that the team give back and establish themselves as more than just a winning rugby team to have a viable future in this area.
The team has put on kids clinics at Ithaca festivals and adopted a stretch of County Road 119 between the college and East King Road. They will have a clean-up of the highway Oct. 9.
Farrell said her team’s values will remain constant whether it wins or loses.
“We’re not willing to sacrifice the values that we founded this team upon simply to win a game or a championship,” Farrell said. “But I think we can play everyone and still win at the same time because we’re focused on really safe and really good rugby.”