The Boston Globe liked my first high school basketball story so much, they brought me back to write a second, this one about Friday’s Somerville-Medford girls’ basketball game. And they paid for it, too!
As some of you might know, Somerville Patch canceled my writing contract with them as the organization moves towards cheaper, user-generated (i.e. “crappy”) content. So rather than let my professional relationships with the coaches and administrators of Somerville High School go to waste, I pitched my services to Boston.com. I wrote my tryout feature for them on Friday’s GBL-opener between the Somerville and Cambridge boys’ basketball teams.
The story went live Saturday morning, and my editor said he wanted to work with me again. Check it out!
Imagine you’re tackled while playing football. You hit the ground hard and expect play to stop. Instead, bodies suddenly start flying every which way. Teammates and opponents slam into each other all around you. Your opponents want to strip the ball; your teammates want to clear a path for you to hand the ball off (while you’re still on the ground, remember). And if you do hand the ball off safely, you have to get up immediately and take the new ball-carrier’s place as a potential tackler.
What would you call this mass chaos? You’d call it rugby. And the women’s rules are the exact same as the men’s.
On Sunday, April 3, the Boston University women’s rugby team is taking on Radcliffe College at Harvard University’s Cumnock Field. White lines on the synthetic grass mark a 70-meter by 100-meter field with two “try lines” to mark the front of rugby’s scoring area, and two dead-ball lines to mark its end. H-shaped goalposts stand centered on the try lines.
Players score in rugby – whose name comes from the Rugby School in central England, where the sport originated – by touching the football to the ground inside the goal area, resulting in a five-point “try.” A two-point “conversion” attempt follows, in which the ball must be kicked through the uprights and above the crossbar. The ball can also be drop-kicked through the uprights for a three-point “drop goal.”
For the conversion the ball must be positioned in line with where it was touched down for the try, so runners will often enter the goal area, then head towards the center before touching the ball down.
BU gets on the board first when senior fullback Sarah Appleton breaks two tackles and runs over a third before downing the ball to the far left of the goalpost. Appleton’s conversion attempt – kicked directly into a gusting, 18 mph wind – sails wide right. 5-0, Terriers. But Radcliffe responds with a try of its own to tie the game.
If the ball goes out of bounds, a lineout is awarded against the last team to touch it. The opposing team throws in the ball, and each side has two players grab a third by the shorts and lift her into the air. The two elevated players vie for control of the ball.
BU is awarded a lineout near its own try line, but Radcliffe gets control of the ball and punches it in for a 10-5 lead. Poor lineout play will plague the Terriers all game.
The Radcliffe women score five more unanswered tries, converting three times, to go up 41-5 early in the second half.
The football cannot be thrown forward, so players run with the ball as far as they can, then pass it laterally or backwards to a teammate, or they are tackled. When a player is tackled, teammates form a protective “ruck” around the downed player, attempting to push opponents out of the way long enough for the ball to be handed off to a teammate.
BU’s only real scoring chance during Radcliffe’s streak comes late in the first half, as forward (forwards tend to be the stronger, heavier players) Aubrey Macgill barrels through Radcliffe tacklers as she approaches the try line. But she reacts too quickly as she is tackled, not waiting for the ruck to cover her, and she throws the ball away. Macgill turns the ball over several times during BU’s game.
If a player runs ahead of the ball (“off-sides”), or pushes it forward with his or her hands (a “knock-on”), the opposing team is awarded a “scrum.” Eight players interlock and form a three-tiered battering ram that slams shoulders-first into the opposing eight, trying to push the other side backwards while using their feet to feed the ball back to teammates, who restart the running.
Radcliffe’s women are on average a bit taller than BU’s, which gives them added leverage in the scrum. They are able to push back and nearly over-run the Terrier defenders. By the time BU recovers, Radcliffe is running at full speed, easily cutting through BU’s first line of defense, then dragging the remaining Terrier tacklers for extra yards before the next ruck.
Late in the second half, BU is awarded the ball after Radcliffe’s scrum-half illegally rolls the ball towards her teammates instead of down the middle of the scrum. BU downs the ball for a try, and Appleton converts.
BU captain Julie Athanasiadis fights her way for another try late in the game, but several rucks just outside the try-line beforehand take too much time off the clock for BU to mount a comeback.
Radcliffe 48, BU 19.
In a sport that requires so much contact, so much physicality, so much hitting, you might think that only the most naturally aggressive women play. You would be wrong.
“We don’t just run around the pitch hitting people as hard as possible,” says captain Teagan Lukacs in an e-mail. “There is a lot of technique involved in tackling to be effective and avoid injury. The focus is to get possession of the ball, not just inflict pain.”
During one of BU’s 5:30 a.m. practices on Nickerson Field, freshman Mandy Garelick describes the game in militaristic terms, using words such as “war,” “survival,” and “soldier.” In the background, BU’s Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps does drills.
Junior Irene O’Brien says that camaraderie and trust are crucial in a sport where players stand guard over fallen teammates.
“For me, it’s like a protective thing,” O’Brien says of rucking over tackled teammates. “I want to make sure that I get there so I can make it easier.”
Team president Abigail Smigelski says that most players accept the hitting as crucial to winning the game, so their competitive drive fuels their physicality.
Many women first get into rugby through some kind of competition. Mandy Garelick and sophomore Alex Krawczuk both say they started playing through dares or bets. Beth Riley, 23, who played for Trinity College in Conn., said she joined “out of spite” after recovering from an injury that doctors said would keep her from playing varsity athletics.
Rugby players are often stereotyped as stocky lesbians. The BU team has women of all shapes and sizes. One player wears a gray t-shirt that reads, “So gay so what!”
Smigelski says that while the stereotype is unfair, rugby is definitely a sport that welcomes women of all orientations.
How fitting. My 300th post gets published by the Boston Globe.
The Worcester Wildcats, a Junior league (developmental league for high school and college-age players) team, arrived at the Simoni Ice Rink in Cambridge, Mass., on February 12 for a hockey game. Their opponents: the Ice Cats, a club team from… Berklee? Berklee College of Music has a hockey team?
It does, and they’re currently 10-4. Not bad for musicians.
The Ice Cats come out aggressively against the Junior Wildcats, and captain Taylor Martin scores 20 seconds into the first period on a wrist-shot just inside the left goal post.
Berklee’s chippy, physical game disrupts the Wildcats’ skating and passing finesse, and they score twice more in rapid succession – from the right side of the ice by left wing Jon Priest, then on a tip-in by center Neal Warner 20 seconds later.
But with six minutes left in the first period, Berklee right wing Carter Lee is ejected for an illegal leg check. The Ice Cats bench laughs as Lee skates off the ice; this is not Lee’s first penalty for aggressive hits, Berklee coach Jimmy Gately says after the game.
The Wildcats score twice while Lee is serving his five-minute major interference penalty, cutting the Berklee lead to 3-2. That seems to light a fire in Priest, who scores three times in the second and third period: on a backwards pass from Richard in the second, after faking out two Wildcats and going airborne early in the third, and on a short-handed goal (4-on-5) in the closing minutes of the game. He also gets an assist in the first period.
“It was a tough blow in losing our leading goal scorer in Carter Lee,” Priest says of his strong offensive night. “Somebody had to do it, and I was looking up and down the bench, and nobody else was gonna do it, so I figured it might as well be me.”
Final score: Berklee 8, Worcester 3.
The Ice Cats play exciting hockey, but nobody comes to watch. Four fans watch the initial face-off, and seven more trickle in before the first period ends. Even in the closing minutes of the game, fewer than 20 Berklee students are watching their school’s only true athletic team.
Worse, they aren’t behaving like sports fans. They cheer politely for goals, or for big saves by goalie Jeremy Blas, but otherwise they sit quietly and respectfully, as if at a music recital.
A small but rowdy gang shows up for the second period, livening things up by banging on the glass behind the Berklee bench, cheering, stomping, mocking the Wildcats, encouraging fights. Jessi Damron, a visitor from Detroit, says they’re trying to make the occasion “feel more like a hockey game.”
“A lot of students don’t know that we have official school colors,” says assistant coach Doug Orey. “They don’t realize that we have a mascot.”
Orey says the Ice Cats have tried to get more fans by adding music, with mixed results. The Ice Cats brought in a Berklee band for a March 2007 game, but they played jazz standards, not fight songs. Plus, Simoni has no sound system, it’s a half-mile from the nearest subway station, the seating is uncomfortable, the rink is toe-numbingly cold, and the place is just plain ugly.
Since 2006, Berklee students wishing to play NCAA sports have been able to try out for one of cross-town Emerson University’s 14 NCAA Division-3 sports, said Jane Stachowiak, Berklee’s Director of Student Wellness and Health Promotion, in an email. But students who want to wear Berklee’s red and gray can skate for the Ice Cats (named after Berklee mascot Mingus the Jazz Cat) in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, Division 2. Their opponents include Junior teams and club teams from local schools such as Bentley University in Waltham and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. They also play against Emerson’s hockey team in the annual “Boylston Cup” at Boston University’s Walter Brown Arena.
Goaltender Blas says that the hockey team has been a unifying force among its players at a school where musical tastes can create “a conscious divide” within the student body.
“We come from different backgrounds, but it’s funny that hockey is the one thing that ties us all together,” Blas says. “When we get together and watch puck, everyone is just a big family and everything else is put aside.”
Berklee’s administration, led by Associate Director for New Student Programs Tamia Jordan, sees potential in the Ice Cats.
“I went to these schools where athletics created this huge sense of community, and the number one goal of a student activities center is to build community on a college campus,” Jordan says. “When I look at the Ice Cats, I see them as a tremendous opportunity to create a sense of community and a sense of ‘We’re home of the Ice Cats’ here at Berklee.”
Although Jordan says Berklee currently funds about two-thirds of the Ice Cats’ expenses, through uniforms, rink fees and extra health insurance, plans to popularize and re-brand the team are still in the initial stages.
Kevin Gin, Coordinator for Clubs and Events, says that he’d like to see a student internship created to market and manage the team, which he thinks would be a valuable experience for students studying music business or band management.
Gin says that with the right marketing, Ice Cats games could become a central part of the Berklee experience, welcomed by a student body partially made up of graduates from more athletically oriented universities.
While Jordan and Gin say the key to increasing the Ice Cats’ campus presence lies in treating them not as a student-run club but as an actual athletic team, the Ice Cats will likely never join the NCAA.
“I think it unlikely that Berklee would attempt to gain NCAA status as the process for doing so is very cumbersome and we do not possess the facilities needed,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Bethune in an e-mail.
Tamia Jordan agrees, but adds, “Crazier things have happened.”
The Ice Cats’ final tournament starts Saturday, March 26, at the Simoni Ice Rink. For more info, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org