Greeley, Colo., has been a hotbed of women’s rugby this summer. The university town is on the verge of hosting its highest profile event – Nations Cup (July 30 – August 10) – and tested its resources earlier this month during the Boys and Girls High School All Americans’ five-day camp. The University of Northern Colorado hosted a smaller, but no less important, assembly last weekend, too, welcoming the Women’s Collegiate All Americans’ Top 40 into town.
The camp brought together a healthy mix of experienced players and high-performance newcomers. At the top of the pyramid were well known athletes like 15s Eagles Megan Bonny and Erin Overcash, 7s Eagle Rebekah Siebach, 2012 DII Club Championship MVP Aoibheann Cline, and Navy No. 8 Erika Pederson, who just returned from Russia after representing the USA at the World University Summer Games.
But elite-level experience was outweighed by the class of fresh faces, who represented every corner of the country, hailing from large universities to small colleges. Leslie Ota, a senior at Fordham University (Bronx, N.Y.), which has an undergrad enrollment of about 8,300, was one such fresh face.
“I wish somebody had handed me a rugby ball before I could even walk,” Ota lamented her late start with rugby. “I wish I had been playing rugby all this time, but I’ve been playing soccer instead!”
Ota, like many of her All American compatriots, played sports her entire life and decided college was a good opportunity to try out a sport she’d only vaguely heard about. For the last three years, Ota’s been a mainstay in Fordham’s front row, experimenting with loose forward from time to time.
“She was very relaxed, unlike a lot of my previous coaches, who were all very strict and focused on winning tournaments,” Ota recalls her first impressions of Fordham coach Renee Ovrut. “Renee emphasized that rugby can make you a better person in addition to a better player, and it was fun.”
Ota's on-field experience sounds familiar, “breaking so many rules and not understanding that I was,” but she quickly evolved into someone who “can appreciate the complexity of the game, and still enjoy it like it’s my first-ever tackle.”
Ovrut picked up on that transformation and encouraged her to consider the All Americans. The coach had this to say about her tighthead prop:
Leslie is naturally athletic, but pushes herself to be stronger, faster, quicker. She is constantly challenging herself to be a better player and has a high accountability for her personal goals. Also, Leslie wants to learn more about rugby; she is very coachable and can easily implement new technique, strategy and tactics into game play. She uses every opportunity she can to learn more about the game, rises to every opportunity she's presented, and because of this, is constantly evolving as a player. Above all, though, Leslie is one of the most personable, hard-working and positive people you could meet. Her overall demeanor makes her an exemplary team player, while also highlighting her natural leadership skills.
Ota didn’t overrule Ovrut’s nomination and the senior was invited to the WCAA East Coast camp at the end of June. Between that assembly and the West Coast camp, 100 athletes were whittled down to 40, and Ota made the cut.
"When I was invited to the second camp, I was really confused,” Ota said. “I thought, ‘They still want me to play?’ I still can’t get over the fact that I attended the Top 40.”
The camps were similarly structured: two practice sessions per day – the morning practice focusing on small skills and the afternoon spent establishing them – and a scrimmage on day three. It was an educational experience for Ota, and she soaked it all up.
“When we split off by positions and I worked with the props specifically,” the prop recounted the most intriguing aspects of camp. “Assistant coach Sue Whitwell talked about body positioning, how you hold your shoulders and hips – how it influences the whole scrum and translates into more power.
Ota was also intrigued by the less tangible side of the game and enjoyed sessions with Michelle McAlarnen, the group's mental skills coach.
“We took a breather during one of our rugby sessions and Mack showed us how to refocus," Ota said. "It’s important because you’ve got adrenaline pumping through you, and you know how games can easily get carried away, and you need to refocus.”
That mental exercise came in handy on day three, when Ota played in the most intense game of her career. Invites to phase three of tryouts – the August 26 game against the Twin Cities Amazons – for the fall France tour were on the line, but there were no temper flares, high tackles, and everyone was a good sport, according to Ota.
“Sometimes someone would be running by, and I’d think, ‘There’s no way I can even catch up with them,’” Ota remarked on the level of talent. “But then someone tells you that she’s from the national team or playing with the Eagles, and you think, ‘Oh, ok, good. It’s not really just another kid beating you that badly.’”
That said, Ota is determined to impress in Minnesota, and she’s sticking to her prescribed workout plans and adding in the cardio. But she’s concerned, too. As someone late to the game, these elite-level aspirations conflict with her educational goals. She’s currently applying to veterinary schools and working in a research program this summer. She’s anticipating some issues in the future.
“I always knew that I’d keep playing rugby in the area,” Ota said of her post-collegiate life, “but the elite level requires you to dedicate your whole being to that. I already had to miss the beginning of my research program internship for the Top 40 camp, and balancing that with vet school, it’s looking unrealistic. But I’ll see once I get accepted and I’ll keep pushing.”
Should Ota get a taste of international rugby playing against France – an unbelievable prospect, Ota says – then that decision to keep pursuing high-level rugby might get a little easier.