On the eve of the Grand Canyon University women’s rugby team’s departure for USA Rugby’s collegiate Division II Spring National Championship, the Lopes were staging their final team practice Thursday night on campus.
Eight months after introducing most of their players to the sport for the team’s inaugural season, GCU coaches Alison Price and Daniela Mogro were preparing them to vie for a national championship this weekend at Stanford.
The practice opened with a passing drill that made Price reflect on how they went from explaining the rules in August to a final four in April.
“I was just so proud,” Price said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, they look like a rugby team.’ Because they didn’t before.”
GCU will face Tulane in an 11 a.m. Saturday semifinal game at Stanford with the winner advancing to Sunday’s 11 a.m. championship game against California-Irvine or Kennesaw State.
That is a long way from scouring the GCU campus for athletes once a team was granted to Price and Mogro, who played together for five years on USA Rugby national teams. Once the team had been granted, most rugby prospects were committed to colleges so the coaches used GCU Club Sports events, held on-campus meetings and asked anyone interested to recruit a GCU friend.
It resulted in a Lopes team made up of mostly former basketball, soccer and softball athletes who did not know how to play rugby or had never heard of it.
“Only two of them knew each other before they started,” Mogro said. “Now, they’re a family.”
Lopes sophomore Sara Lawson had played lacrosse as a freshman and was leaving that team’s practice in the fall when she walked by GCU’s Prescott Field with an activity that was foreign to her. Despite never hearing of the sport, she joined the practice on the spot and never went back to lacrosse.
“It’s a family right away,” said Lawson, an Anaheim, Calif., native. “Everyone is so welcoming and kind. I love the sport and they’re amazing. I was shocked how quick everyone got it. We have amazing coaches. They’re so committed. They don’t treat us like children.”
Price and Mogro made the early teachings simple. They showed them video of a rugby game after explaining the sport to them and then threw them on the field for a sink-or-swim first practice.
“We tried to run it live and it was kind of a mess,” Price said. “It was so jumbled. We all started the sport after coming from other sports. Until you get in the game, it’s really hard to imagine what rugby is going to be like. We just needed that first game to build and grow from there.”
But they did, focusing on basic tenets like ball retention, easy passes and tackling form.
“After a few weeks of practicing and seeing the determination and work ethic in the girls, it was expected to do well,” said GCU sophomore Jasmine Fifer, who had a rugby background in her hometown, Fresno, Calif. “The dedication is real and we came this far because of that.”
The Lopes earned their trip to the national semifinals by winning twice in Bellingham, Wash., despite a 21-hour travel ordeal to get there. They thumped playoff host Western Washington, 29-5, and then rallied to beat Fresno State, 36-28, in the quarterfinals.
“I cried instantly,” Lawson said. “Everybody ran and hugged each other. It was amazing. That was the highlight of my college career so far.”
The Lopes trailed the quarterfinal game, 19-10, before rallying with three consecutive tries in the second half. Later clinging to a 29-28 lead, Fifer pushed across the final game-clinching try.
“Fight hard and win or fight hard and lose,” Fifer said of putting away her hometown college. “Either way, I was going to end in a fight.”
For Mogro and Price, this is only the start of a program that now will be able to recruit athletes and help grow the sport they love in Arizona.
The more immediate task is to knock off Tulane, which won the fall Division II national championship and reached last year’s spring Division II national championship.
“It takes you back to when I was in college and walked into a rugby team and had an instant network,” Mogro said.