Triumph of the Spirit — BYU women’s rugby wins national championship

By Aaron Fitzner - Thursday, May 9, 2019 - The Daily Universe

BYU women’s rugby holds the national championship trophy. The jerseys worn in the championship game were the same jerseys that were worn during the Cougars’ first game as a recognized sport with BYU in 2015. (BYU women’s rugby)
BYU women’s rugby holds the national championship trophy. The jerseys worn in the championship game were the same jerseys that were worn during the Cougars’ first game as a recognized sport with BYU in 2015. (BYU women’s rugby)

Matthews, NC - The BYU women’s rugby team captured its first-ever national title on May 4 with an overwhelming 48-0 win over Virginia Tech. The story for this game, however, is more than the final score.

The story for this game started in 2000 when women’s rugby began at BYU. The script was revamped in 2010 when the women’s rugby squad chose to chase honor rather than a national title. In 2015, the script from this story was changed again when the rugby team became officially recognized by BYU. All of these stories became one telling tale of a team in 2019 that featured not only the current roster but every athlete that has ever put on a rugby jersey representing BYU.

When the women’s rugby squad at BYU was first organized in 2000, there were only a few players that started the program, and recruiting was tough. Students left the following summer, and only a few came back the following year. Julia Hobbs, a player from Oklahoma, was instrumental in keeping the program afloat at that point.

“She was the one that gathered all the girls after that and kept the program going on their own without the school because they weren’t sanctioned at that time,” BYU women’s rugby head coach Tom Waqa said.

The team was not a sanctioned sport at BYU until 2015, so for the 15 years from 2000-2015, athletes wanting to play on the women’s rugby team had to sacrifice and provide their own way to keep rugby at BYU.

“From 2000-2015, this team was driven on the backs of the students,” coach Waqa said. “They fundraised themselves to support the team. They sacrificed a lot, and without them, the sport of women’s rugby wouldn’t be at BYU today.”

Fast forwarding to 2010, the women’s rugby squad had an impressive team that found itself in the national tournament. It was a squad with a promising shot at the national title.

On Saturday, April 23, 2010, Cougar rugby stepped onto the pitch for a knockout game against the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the national tournament. By the end of the match, the scoreboard boasted a convincing score in favor of the Cougars. This score read 46-7, but the score of this overwhelming victory did not even begin to tell the real story.

Bliss of advancing to the quarterfinals of the national tournament would soon turn to a different emotion, a contrasting feeling — heartbreak.

“We won today,” coach Tom Waqa told AOL news. “But the girls’ biggest opponent is tomorrow. That is adversity.”

Because of an error made by USA rugby, the quarterfinal match that would have placed Cougar rugby against Penn State had to be forfeited. This match was scheduled the next day, on a Sunday.

“It was national news. We were scheduled to play on Sunday, a mistake made by USA rugby on an oversight of the scheduling,” coach Waqa said. “We all know the story of that game. It was forfeited against Penn State.”

Instead of pursuing a national title, Cougar rugby chose to pursue their honor, beliefs and God by keeping the sabbath day holy — a teaching held close to the athletes’ hearts.

“After that tournament, hearts were broken,” coach Waqa said with tears in his eyes. “There were seniors that played their last game who could have won the championship. It still hurts me to this day. They played with a heavy heart that day. I still remember their faces and the sacrifices they (made) for the team.”

Adversity turned into faith, and the rugby team boarded their plane back to Provo as the rugby pitch was left untouched on Sunday, April 24.

After the 2010 season, the team received funds from some of the team members’ parents. Cougar rugby would not have been able to afford new jerseys without that financial help. These jerseys featured a new design, a design that would carry a legacy at BYU.

“From the help of some parents we bought a new set of jerseys with stripes, and it had ‘Women’s Cougar Rugby’ on it. We couldn’t call ourselves BYU,” coach Waqa said.

These jerseys would be worn for the next five years until 2015 when Cougar rugby received an official name change. This change came because of the heavy sacrifices made by every player that ever donned the stripes for Cougar rugby.

The 2015 BYU women’s rugby team wear their jerseys with the BYU logo after their first game, which they won. (BYU women’s rugby)
The 2015 BYU women’s rugby team wear their jerseys with the BYU logo after their first game, which they won. (BYU women’s rugby)

On Oct. 8, 2015, BYU women’s rugby stepped onto the pitch for the first time as a recognized team of BYU, no longer needing to refer to themselves by their unsanctioned name of Cougar rugby.

“We won convincingly that day,” coach Waqa said. “The team was hyped; they were just proud to represent the Y.”

Elle Peterson, a captain on the 2019 national championship team, described the feeling she had when she was finally able to wear a jersey that represented an official BYU team.

“I learned about all the sacrifices that the girls before me had given just to play on this club team,” Peterson said. “To be able to say that we’re are a part of BYU really hit home for me because I knew how hard all of those girls before me had worked.”

The original jerseys from 2015 would be retired, momentarily, after the conclusion of the season. Though the jerseys changed, the design didn’t, and those jerseys will forever live on with BYU rugby.

“That design will never change. It represents the emblem of hope and sacrifice for those that have come before us. I still remember them,” coach Waqa said.

These new jerseys would be used for the next four years until the final match of 2019. Before the championship match, coach Waqa brought the original jerseys from 2015 out of retirement one last time.

This national tournament came nine years after their heartbreaking forfeit in 2010. Still searching for their first national title, coach Waqa made the decision to instill the spirit of every athlete that has ever stepped on the rugby pitch for a squad representing BYU.

“This last game, the last championship game, that jersey was handed out for the last time. I told the players, ‘you go out today and you keep the jersey. You play with your jersey and you write the final script for the jersey,'” Waqa said.

This jersey represents more than just the team that would go on to win the 2019 national title in a commanding fashion.

This jersey represents Julia Hobbs and the 2000 team that instilled hope into the rugby program. The 2010 team that, knowing this would be many of the members’ last game, forfeited a match because playing the match would go against the honor they held. This jersey represented the 2015 squad that was finally recognized by the university and could play under the name of ‘BYU women’s rugby.’ The jersey represents sacrifice, hard work, relentless dedication and family.

“Go frame it. Tell your kids and your grandkids what that jersey meant. Hang it on the wall. Tell them, ‘Mom played in a national championship and was valiant,'” Waqa emotionally told the team before the national championship game. “You keep the jersey — you write the final script on that jersey. That jersey means a lot to the team and to those that have come before you.”

The BYU women’s rugby team won the DI national championship with a 48-0 win over Virginia Tech. (BYU women’s rugby)
The BYU women’s rugby team won the DI national championship with a 48-0 win over Virginia Tech. (BYU women’s rugby)

With the whole history of the rugby program there with the 2019 BYU women’s rugby squad on the field for the national game, the team didn’t allow a single “try” — not one point was scored against BYU women’s rugby in the national championship game. This title was for everyone that ever played rugby at BYU, not just the players that took the field on May 4, 2019.

“Similar to the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, it’s not just about when you arrive in the program,” coach Waqa said. “If you arrive at 6 o’clock in the morning or you arrived at noon or the eleventh hour. This team arrived at the eleventh hour; the payment is the same, and everybody benefits from it.”

The emotion of this victory will live on with BYU women’s rugby as they prepare for next season — emotion that came by way of triumph over adversity.

Quoting President Theodore Roosevelt, coach Waqa concluded, “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that know not victory nor defeat.”