By Jackie Finlan
Amy Rusert has always been willing to take on obstacles and break from the mold. She wasn’t always a rugby player, but maybe she always had some of the spirit of the game.
Now a confessed rugby addict, Rusert wasn't always rugby-obsessed. She played DI field hockey at Penn State, but then transferred to Virginia Tech, which had dropped the program. Understandably, Rusert wasn’t happy, and she decided to do something about it. At Tech, she helped initiate a Title IX class action suit that eventually settled out of court and eventually led to the addition of fast-pitch softball and lacrosse to the college's athletic department.
"A couple of years ago, I was watching my kid brother play lacrosse in college, and I saw a young woman on the sideline wearing a Virginia Tech lacrosse sweatshirt," Rusert remembered. "I almost openly wept, and wanted to tell her how happy I was for her and how her opportunity came to be.”
It was an inspiring experience for Rusert, who went on to work for the Women's Sports Foundation, and the national governing bodies (NGBs) for Women's Professional Fast Pitch, US Field Hockey and USA Rugby. Her involvement in the latter evolved when she moved to Minneapolis when she began working for the professional softball NGB. In her spare time, she picked up with an inline field hockey league, in which some off-season Twin Cities Amazons were also dabbling. Always on the lookout for potential converts, the Zons convinced Rusert to give rugby a try.
"I fell in love with it," Rusert reflected on her first rugby experience, although the now-Colorado resident has always been exposed to the sport. Her uncle played and her aunt helped found the Chicago Women's team. It was still an adjustment for her family, her grandmother in particular, as she transitioned from a more demure sport played in skirts and yielding injuries like bruised shins and broken fingers at its worst. But they came around once they saw how important rugby became to Rusert.
As her love for the game grew, Rusert moved to Colorado to work with USA Rugby and became the first full-time staffer dedicated to collegiate development. She helped start the emerging sports initiative with the NCAA in 1996, with good friend Becky Carlson and Kristin Richeimer really putting in the yeoman’s effort in recent years. She helped found the SheWolves and and still thinks about picking up with her old friends on Black Ice, but her involvement is primarily coaching these days. Rusert is the head coach of the women's Colorado College team.
She is also the backs coach for the men's team.
She began coaching the women in 2005 when the former women's coach expressed some concern over his waning availability and the men's team was coachless. When he departed, she joined the women's team staff, recommended a new head coach for the men, became the men's backs coach, and now both teams now hold joint positional practices.
"Colorado College is run by committee, and it dovetails perfectly so we can leverage resources, field space, etc.," Rusert explained. "There's no negative feedback. Colorado College is an elite liberal arts school with 1,900 students, and the kids are open minded. They understand the bigger picture. As a result, we get more support from the athletic department and our active alumni association, which recently established an endowment. It's for the greater good."
Not to say that Rusert doesn't encounter some startle when the male athletes see their female coach. "We rely on crossover athletes, and sometimes the men, when they realize I'm a coach, have a quizzical look on their faces, but that lasts for all of two minutes. They realize it is what it is, and there's no criticism."
The joint practices work well, especially for the women. "The men and women will pack down against each other, and we run joint positional sessions in the backs," Rusert said. "It's a lot of open stuff, not a lot of contact. The pace of the women increases dramatically. There are a couple of women who can keep up with the guys, and I'll throw them in there, but otherwise I have them mirror the guys."
For Rusert and husband Scott Mears, who coaches the men and is forwards coach for the women, the duo has to manage their coaching philosophies and styles according to gender. "It's a learning curve for both of us," Rusert said. "We have to navigate our coaching philosophies and sometimes we're at opposite ends of the field. The women aren't as prone to tears as much anymore, and they giggle more than men, but they're laser-focused and super coachable. What I enjoy about the men is their ‘Yes, ma'am, whatever you say’ philosophy. You keep it short, sweet and succinct with them. You have to be unflappable about occasional language, but boys are boys and sometimes you have to let that go. But they're pretty respectful and consummate hard workers."
The men's team was recently added to RugbyMag.com's DII national rankings, an achievement that they're really excited about. They're experiencing greater success considering their long established history and organization, but Rusert expects the women to follow suit in the next couple of years. Led by captains Kat McLaughlin and Casey Herrington, they're already progressed from a bottom tier team to one in contention for the ERRFU title, although Mesa State (4-0) looks like the favorite. The CIPP rosters have continually grown, the women have sent three players to the West U23s and as many as two dozen to ERRFU's U23 and U19 teams, and that growth is a huge testament to the program that Rusert and her husband have built. It's also a testament to the Eastern Rockies union, of which Rusert is a huge fan.
"I love the culture of ERRFU, especially on the college women side of the house," Rusert said. "There's a perpetual endorsement of each other's programs. We have a fantastic report with [D1] Air Force and scrimmage them often. We want to raise everybody's boat, and the select sides want to see kids come from smaller schools. There is so much respect for other coaches in ERRFU, and you don't see that in a lot of unions. I'm so grateful."
But while Rusert is wholly focused on Colorado College's success, she always has an eye on the national landscape, as her past with NGBs would suggest. She's been consulting with USA Rugby since 2004 and helped launched www.varsityrugby.org last fall, picking up where USAR left off with the NCAA. At varsityrugby, Rusert and Carlson are primarily engaged in the immediate growth of girls’ and women’s program with Title IX and supplying information to groups interested in starting varsity programs or simply growing the game, but they also have many supporters in the boys' and men's game, and don't rule out any opportunity to help launch varsity rugby programs.
"There's so much opportunity," Rusert said. "We're reflecting on opportunities missed, opportunities that people didn't realize were open at the time. In 1992, when the Supreme Court put teeth in Title IX, there was an opportunity to add a lot of women's programs, but rugby wasn't ready. The announcement of rugby in the Rio Olympic Games was another watershed moment, and the US rugby community could have seized that moment [to add new programs], but it's never too late. There are salient moments in rugby history when we need to capitalize.
"I love the grassroots level," Rusert said. "I'm good if I never return to union positions, but from a larger advocacy point, you can't afford to burnout."