Skip to main content

Eckerd College women’s rugby team advanced to national tournament

By Tom Zucco
Published May 18, 2024
Categories: Student Life, Students

Eckerd women’s rugby players battle at the Division II Spring 15s National Championship in Texas. Photos courtesy Dominique Beeck ’25 and Sirens rugby club.

It was an experience Eckerd College senior Dominique Beeck insists she’ll never forget. “We got to travel to Houston, play in a huge stadium, and the game was live-streamed on TV. I was really happy we all got to go and have that experience. We wanted to win, but everyone was just so happy to be there. The game was almost secondary.”

The game. On the weekend of May 4–5, the Eckerd College Sirens—a women’s rugby club team—played in the College Rugby Association of America’s Division II Spring 15s National Championship in Texas. After completing an undefeated Florida Conference season (8–0), including two victories over the University of South Florida, the Sirens lost to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the national tournament and were eliminated. Dominique, an animal studies and biology student from Fort Myers Beach, Florida, is a co-captain on the team.

The fastest-growing college sport in the U.S., rugby, Dominique explains, is a cross between soccer and American football. Along with kicking and passing the ball, there’s a lot of running and tackling, but no blocking. A player’s protective gear consists of a mouthguard and, in some cases, a padded cap. That’s it. Sometimes after a game or a practice, she says she feels like she was hit by a bus. “I got a concussion this past weekend,” Dominique says of the tournament game. “But I went back in because I wanted to get the full experience.”

She hasn’t always been one of the Sirens’ best players. As a first-year student, she recalls, “I was awful. I was terrible.” So after the season ended, she convinced a men’s team in Naples to let her practice with them. She came back the next season and immediately made the starting roster. “I love the sport,” she adds.

Twelve women's rugby team members wearing the same uniform stand in a circle

“After games or practice, everyone gets together to do homework, go to the caf or just hang out. We sing rugby songs that are 100 years old. The social part is very important, but so is how inclusive rugby is … how accepting the sport is to anyone. It’s not easy. And it’s not for everyone, which is totally fine. But it’s a great stress relief, and you can take from it what you want.”

Women’s collegiate rugby has been acknowledged as an “emerging sport” by the NCAA, but it doesn’t yet have full varsity status at either the male or female level. So it’s played on the club level. Among the schools with women’s rugby teams in Florida are the University of Miami, Florida Atlantic and Florida International universities, USF, and St. Thomas University.

Eckerd’s road to rugby began with the Eckerd College Rugby Union, a coed club team founded in 1997 by alumnus Brendan McCluskey ’02. Nearly 30 male and female students showed up for the first workout. And from there, rugby soared. The next year, the College’s first official women’s team, led by Cintia Pecellin ’01, held its first practice on Kappa Field. This year, nearly 50 female students came to the first Sirens practice, some just out of curiosity. More than half of them stayed on.

Traci Martin from Oakley, Michigan, a senior biology student with minors in chemistry, marine science and mathematics, is the Sirens’ other captain and one of the presidents of the club, along with Lulu Miller, a senior marine science student from Fairfield, Iowa. Traci grew up with two older brothers who both played football in high school. She played volleyball and softball and was on the swim team. It was her high school strength coach, a former men’s rugby coach, who suggested she try the sport.

“You don’t know what rugby really is until you play it,” Traci says. “It’s a very good way to stay in good physical condition and get any aggression you have out safely. And our team is very unique. We’re a very tight-knit community. We’re always here for each other.

Two rugby teams in a scrum

“The matches are two 40-minute halves,” she adds. “The only break you get is when someone scores. And you have to keep pushing yourself. But it’s very rewarding because it builds confidence in yourself to be a leader and to try things. If you mess up during a game, that’s fine. Just go out and try again.”

The club’s coach is James Woollcombe-Clarke, who has a full-time job as director of quality at water-bottle maker Cirkul and is able to fit the Sirens in after his workday. He also is vice president of women’s collegiate rugby for the Florida Rugby Union and a former coach of the Tampa Bay Krewe women’s rugby team. But it’s up to the members of the club to keep the team running.

One of more than 90 active student organizations on campus, the Sirens are funded by student activity fees. “Each year we have to submit a charter, our bylaws and a budget,” Traci explains. “Each year it’s been around $12,500 a year, and money does get a little tight at the end of the season.”

And yet every year, the Sirens thrive. “It’s a bonding thing. We don’t have fraternities or sororities here,” explains Fred Sabota, Eckerd’s associate vice president for student life and dean of students, and the club’s adviser. “The men’s and women’s rugby teams have become the gold standard for clubs and activities at Eckerd. When they play their games at Kappa Field, several hundred students will come out of their dorms, put up folding chairs and watch.

“I’m really proud of what the women have been able to do,” he adds. “They found a coach to help run practices and for game management; they apply every year for money, defend their budget and then manage the funds. And none of them are getting scholarships. They’re doing all this on their own.

“It’s a testament to these women and their commitment.”