Women's rugby senior class reflects on careers

The Journal sat down with the 2015 rookie class to discuss careers, legacy, and earning one’s place

This year’s senior women’s class went to the CIS gold-medal game in their rookie season.
This year’s senior women’s class went to the CIS gold-medal game in their rookie season.

Sitting in Kingston Hall on the eve of their women’s rugby national championships debut, nine wide-eyed first-years listened attentively to their senior teammates. 

Every woman in the room sat with a picture in their hands. The photos depicted each player’s reason for why they play rugby—some had snapshots of their parents, others of them with their teammates.

Sadie Stephenson remembers the moment like it was yesterday.

“As a rookie, sitting in a room of all the vets talking about their past experiences … it was super cool to hear,” Stephenson, now a fourth-year on the women’s rugby team, told The Journal earlier this week.

“They meant every single word they said—we understand now.”

Stephenson is a part of the women’s rugby rookie class of 2015. A monumental group, comprised of nine women making up over a fifth of the team’s current roster, are now entering their fourth playoff run with Queen’s. 

But not a moment goes by where that night in Kingston Hall—and every moment thereafter at the nationals Queen’s hosted that year—is forgotten by those nine players. What followed was a historic, improbable run by the women’s rugby team.

“We had no idea what it meant to be at nationals,” Stephenson said. “It was crazy.”

Under ordinary circumstances, the Gaels had no business lacing up at the 2015 CIS championships. As hosts, they were granted automatic entry to the tournament despite finishing fourth in the OUA after losing to Western in the conference’s bronze medal game.

But on home turf and listed as the eighth seed, the Gaels went into the tournament as a group who was just thankful to be there. Most importantly, they understood the stakes couldn’t have been lower.

“If we won [the quarterfinals] it was great for us but if we lost it, it wouldn’t matter,” fourth-year row Lydia Salgo said. “We were so pumped because there was nothing to lose.”

In the CIS quarterfinals against Acadia, the Gaels fell into a 17-0 hole early. But an all-time performance from current assistant coach Lauren McEwen, who nailed four kicks and a conversion, brought Queen’s back into the game and lead to their eventual 24-17 triumph over the tournament’s first seed.

“I can say, honestly, probably to this day, [it’s] the only game I’ve ever been in and looked at the scoreboard and seen 17-0 twenty minutes into the game and [thought], ‘We’re not going to lose,’” fourth-year back row McKinley Hunt said.

“I’ve never felt that sense of calm in a game of that magnitude, being down by that much.”

The next night, the Gaels would play Concordia, winning 27-13 and propelling the team to the CIS Championship—the first in Queen’s women’s rugby history.

“I remember McEwen saying to us that she’d waited so long for this type of opportunity to play in this magnitude of a game,” Hunt said. “I think a lot of us in first year didn’t really know how to react because we didn’t understand.”

After the game, the group of rookies would begin to understand the meaning of what they achieved for those both on and off the field.

While the Gaels would lose to McMaster in the national championship, the team walked off Nixon Field feeling accomplished, but with an undercurrent of mixed emotions.

“We’re aware of that, as a team, we just got to walk right in,” Stephenson said, acknowledging the Gaels hadn’t earned their initial spot at nationals. “It’s an interesting feeling.”

Regardless, the team looked forward to get the next season underway.

“A lot of us were rookies and we were like, ‘We’re only up from here,’” fourth-year row Hannah Greenwood recalled.

Things would go far from how they planned in their second year. When the rookies returned, a number of players from their core leadership group had graduated—something numerous players said left an awkward void on the team.

“No one was excited for practice and in games, nothing was clicking,” fourth-year prop Harlee Bruce said. “It was bad.”

The Gaels would go on to lose to Guelph in the OUA semi-finals and to Western in the bronze medal game that season—precisely as they’d done the previous year.

Last season, however, was a major—if not the major turning point—in the women’s rugby program. Ahead of the season, Queen’s announced Dan Valley would be taking over the head coaching position. From the moment he arrived, the women were “put in place,” according to Stephenson.

“We were basically told we aren’t as good as we think we are,” she added. 

According to Stephenson, Valley would challenge the women’s perception of themselves. He’d question if they deserved their CIS silver medal; he’d ask how such a talented group of players could come together and perform at such a low standard.

“He said that to our face and everyone was like, ‘True,’" Stephenson recalled.

Among the words many players used to describe the Gaels’ adopted mentality last season, the word “accountability” was a common theme—that each player wasn’t just accountable to the team, but themselves. 

Early in his first training camp, Valley established that each spot on his roster would have to be earned: if a rookie outperformed a fifth-year, so be it, he’d tell the team.

As it’d turn out, the period of growth for the team would be exceedingly fast. 

Queen’s finished the season 2-2 and overcame McMaster in a narrow 20-15 win in the OUA semi-finals, propelling the Gaels to the conference finals and, by extension, the U Sports Championships in Lethbridge, Alberta. The team would lose to Guelph in the provincial championships.

But this time, as opposed to when they hosted the championships in 2015, the Gaels had earned their spot on the national stage.

“It was our step to proving ourselves,” Stephenson said.

In Lethbridge, they’d go on to lose their first-round match against Calgary, but rebounded in the consolation round to defeat Acadia.

Going into this year’s playoff campaign, the women said they feel more confident than last season. 

After capping their regular season with a 3-1 record, a calm sense of assurance has settled into the Gaels as they aim to qualify for nationals and improve on last year’s result. 

“It literally just comes down to us putting it all down together,” Stephenson said. “We’ll do it.”

While the weeks leading up to the post-season aren’t a common time for reflection, this year’s group of senior women understand they have a pressing deadline. 

With some graduating this year and others hanging on for a final fifth year, they’re beginning to consider their position as leaders—and how they want to leave an impact for future generations of women’s rugby at Queen’s.

Stephenson said the rookie class of 2015, a group who’s seen the top of the mountain and weathered countless storms, will leave an indelible mark on the program.

“We’re the start of the factory of great rugby players,” she said.

The group recognizes the story the program takes on after they graduate won’t be theirs to tell. But in five, even ten years, when they come back to visit, they hope their legacy will survive them.

“I would just hope this team continues to be one that supports the players around them,” Hunt said. She alluded to the lessons the senior class has learned about the necessity of earning one’s place in various walks of life, including rugby. “I hope the closeness and the drive to compete stays the same.”

“It makes you a better person.”

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