Winona State University women’s rugby club is gearing up to prepare for their competition season in the fall, with their spring practice season.
During this time, the Black Katts have added many new players to the roster.
Sophomore Sydney Stokes said the team has been impressed with the turn out.
“Usually a lot of people start out at the first practice, but they kind of drop off, so this is a pretty good ending number for us,” Stokes said.
With so many new faces, the Black Katts are taking these first few weeks to learn the basics.
“These first couple of weeks especially, it’s just teaching the new players how to pass a ball and how to ruck, and the fundamentals or rugby, because they have to know those in order to play our first game,” junior Makayla Leraas said. “After that we focus on the fundamentals basically the whole time, just getting really good at the basic rugby skills so that you can go and play a game well with the fundamentals.”
One of the big goals for the team this season is to work on their overall fitness.
“Fitness is a big thing with our team, so our goal is to raise our fitness as much as we can and keep working on that,” Stokes said. “Our entire focus during spring is fall season, so it’s really just working our butts off all spring.”
When asked about the team’s return to the national championship game last fall, Stokes reflected positively on the experience.
“It was my first time at national’s and it was an experience of a lifetime,” Stokes said.
The Black Katts have a majority of their players returning from their team last fall.
“I feel fairly confident in our team this year,” Leraas said. “We didn’t have many seniors, so it is going to be pretty much the same team that’s going to come back. We are just filling a few spots and moving a couple of people around, so I feel pretty confident in our ability to play together and communicate with each other.”
Stokes and Leraas both talked about how they became interested in rugby.
“In high school we played powder puff football for homecoming and the high school football coach always wanted me to join football after he saw me playing,” Leraas said. “When I got to college I had heard about rugby and thought it was kind of like football but without the pads, so I could be good at that. Then I joined, thinking it was like football, and it’s not like football, but I fell in love with the sport, the tackling and the team.”
Stokes also joined rugby in hopes that it would be like football.
“Me and my dad are really big football fans, and he only has daughters, but he wanted to share the football experience with someone, then I heard of rugby,” Stokes said. “I went to the same high school as the captain, so I talked to her about it and she got me going to one practice. Before the first practice I was just excited to be a football player. After, I fell absolutely head over heels for this game. After the first game, nothing was on my mind but rugby.”
Stokes and Leraas both agreed playing rugby is a big stress reliever.
“I’ve never been able to not think about anything else in the world,” Stokes said. “After a game, I don’t even remember the game, that’s how in tune I am with it and it’s an amazing feeling out there.”
Neither Leraas nor Stokes played rugby before college, but both had experience in other sports and said it helped with their transition to the team.
“I played basketball and softball, and so having the coordination with a ball does help, but we have had so many people on our team that have been dancers, or figure skaters, track runners, so many people that have done other sports that don’t involve a ball that can pick up on it just as easily,” Leraas said. “So I don’t think there is necessarily a certain sport that would prepare you more than another.”
The Black Katts had their first game this spring season Saturday, April 6, and came away with a win against Minneapolis Menagerie 35-12.
“I think that we worked together well this weekend. We had some of our new girls playing so communication was a big part of the game. It was even really important for all of our players who have played before because it was our first game back together,” Leraas said. “The first few minutes were a little extra hectic as we were all getting back into the swing of a rugby game, but for the most part we worked really well together.”
The game gave the Black Katts an idea of what they need to work on moving forward in this season.
“After the game was over, it was clear that our fitness had slipped a little bit over the winter,” Leraas said. “However, it is an easy thing that all of us are really going to work on improving. Reducing our number of penalties is also something we need to work on. We had a number of different ones on Saturday and it gave the Menagerie a lot of ground to work down the field towards their try-line.”
Overall, the team is optimistic about this season and their new team members.
“One thing that I think would be a highlight of the game is how well the new girls played. There were some mistakes, but that was expected — it’s how you learn the game,” Leraas said. “Each of them played hard and asked questions. We also had a few really good tackles from some of our veteran players.”
The Black Katts will have their first home game against University of Northern Iowa on Saturday, April 13.