Over the weekend, Northern Virginia Community College’s campus in Loudoun hosted the first-ever home game of its newest Nighthawks team: women’s rugby.
The team began with a six-week leadership course centered on co-ed, non-contact rugby and taught by NOVA Student Life Program Director Mike McMillon. He came to the college with 14 years of experience as a player, coach, and administrator, and has been at NOVA for three years.
“Since I’ve been around, what I’ve been hearing most from students is that what they’d like to see most programming-wise is in recreation and physical fitness opportunities,” McMillon said. But the famously tough sport of rugby seemed to answer that complaint.
“What’s great about the team and working with rugby is that anybody can play rugby,” McMillon said. “It’s really a sport that’s made for everyone. We need big people, strong people, small people, fast people.”
After the course was over, some of the players wanted to put together a full-contact women’s team. And on Sunday, at a tournament at the college campus, the Nighthawks scored their first-ever try—akin to a touchdown in football—and notched their first win. They had only played two matches before that tournament, and while many of the players played sports in high school, most had never played rugby.
Team co-captain Giselle Lovo said she came to the team after playing lacrosse and field hockey, but had been off the field after an injury. She said her brought her field awareness and ability to move from those sports to rugby.
The team’s other captain, Bridgette Solarte, came to the sport from wrestling in high school. She emailed McMillon to ask about a campus wrestling team and found out there was none—but he encouraged her to try rugby. She had some learning to do on throwing and catching the ball.
“I remember he [McMillon] told me, that’s the least of your worries, with practice everything will come about,” Solarte said.
But tackling was no problem for the former wrestler.
“I was new the sport, so it was very different to me, but it was very welcoming and it was very fun,” Solarte said. “…Now that we’re an actual team it’s really nice to see how it’s growing and how people are loving it.”
Lovo said she and her co-captain Bridgette Solarte have indeed brought leadership skills to the team—particularly tough love.
“It’s like good cop and bad cop put together,” Lovo said. “It’s easier to talk with the girls. Especially when you have like one-on-one time with any of them, you get to know them really well, and it’s important to involve everyone in anything that you do.”
McMillon said the first try was scored by Analicia Roberts.
“When I saw her just zoom right through, it was so amazing,” Lovo said. “And we tried to get right behind her, but she was way too fast for us to catch her.”
Solarte and Grace Carter also touched the ball behind the goal line to score tries.
At that game, players also put on jerseys for the other team, the Georgetown Hoyas, who could not bring enough players to field a full 15-player team on Sunday.
“As exciting as it is that the rugby community is growing rapidly, it’s also still a tight-knit community,” McMillon said. “It’s very common at social tournaments where there’s a team that wants to be able to [compete] but for some reason their numbers are a little bit short.”
Meanwhile, the women on the 28-member Nighthawks squad were eager to get on the pitch—in any colors.
“We had students on our team clamoring to play with the other teams, because they wanted the experience,” McMillon said. “That’s one of the things we’ve kind of harped on. You’re all so new, there’s nothing we can do about the fact that you don’t have experience, and every opportunity that we’ve had we’ve tried to give them, including this weekend.”
“I think right now it’s just more of a learning opportunity for the girls, and if they want to continue for next semester, I strongly encourage them to,” Lovo said. “Because I know for a fact that I will most likely—definitely—continue on for next semester and however long.”
Solarte said the players—many of whom also have jobs outside of attending college—have made the time to play and support the team.
“It’s just so nice to see how dedicated the girls are, not only to me but to the team as a whole,” Solarte said. “The responsibility they’ve had with it and respecting the team and just communicating, because it’s always hard. There are things in life that you can’t control. The girls on the team have made it a lot easier for this team to keep going and being able to progress and expand.”