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‘A True Underdog Story’

Women’s Rugby Overcomes Odds, Turns Heads in Final Four

By Bob Fulton
July 30, 2014
Appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of
IUP Magazine.

Had an aspiring screenwriter pitched the idea to a Hollywood agent, the subsequent rejection letter would surely have included this critique: Too far-fetched.

The saga of a women’s collegiate club rugby team that struggles for visibility and respect on its own campus, goes undefeated in the regular season and captures its league championship, wins twice in the national tournament to advance to the semifinals, raises $25,000 through an online funding site to finance its trip to the Final Four in California, and, with a dramatic consolation game victory, finishes third in the nation, all the while operating without the services of a coach, seems too improbable even for Tinseltown.

But this was no work of fiction—just a glorious chapter in IUP sports history.

“It was a true underdog story,” said junior Amanda Capoferri, who spearheaded the fund-raising campaign that enabled the Scooters, as they’re known, to cap a 10-1 season among the elite at Stanford University. An indomitable group of players who shrugged off adversity as readily as they did would-be tacklers wrote the feel-good story of the year in IUP athletics.

“We had a lot of odds against us,” said senior Jami Marsicano, the president of the rugby club. “So being able to finish third in the country is something I think all of us will treasure forever. I’ll never forget this season or this team.”

The Scooters, who lost in the round of 16 at last year’s tournament, demolished their first three foes by an aggregate score of 258-0 and finished the regular season unbeaten, thanks to a stirring comeback against Slippery Rock. IUP trailed 26-12 at halftime and 31-27 entering the final seconds before senior Becca Kephart broke free and dashed down the field, desperate defenders in her wake, to score the try that sealed a 32-31 victory.

“They’ve been our rivals for as long as I can remember, so to beat them like that, in the last minute, was awesome,” said senior co-captain Stephanie Lucchese. “It was just a phenomenal game, one of the highlights of the season.”

Victoria Jarrett and Shelby Runyan, center, at a team practice in May

 

Brittany Lyons, left, and Devon Etters worked together to bring down a player from Cal State-Northridge

Top: Victoria Jarrett and Shelby Runyan, center, at a team practice in May

Bottom: Brittany Lyons, left, and Devon Etters worked together to bring down a player from Cal State-Northridge.

The highlights were so plentiful it’s easy to forget that the Scooters played without the steadying hand of a coach, a fact that seldom escapes the notice of opponents. “Other teams kind of look at us like we have six heads because we don’t have a coach,” Capoferri said.

What astonished opponents even more is that IUP dominated anyway.

“We came in third in the nation. I mean, it’s incredible to do that as a self-governed team,” said former Scooters captain Kim Kamertz, who served as acting coach at the Final Four after paying her own way to California. “You rarely hear of a rugby team without a coach. Most teams have four or five coaches, and I’m telling people, ‘um, we don’t have one.’”

What the Scooters do have is an unbreakable bond, forged by an us-against-the-world mentality. As participants in a club sport, they often feel overlooked and underappreciated, even on their own campus. And so they’ve learned to lean on each other.

“I think that’s the thing about being a self-governed team—yeah, it’s hard, but we’re closer as a result,” Kamertz said. “We’re like family. We live together and eat, sleep, and breathe rugby while we’re at school. We just do everything together.”

Especially win. Yet despite their regular-season success—a 7-0 record and a second consecutive Allegheny Rugby Union title—there was no guarantee the Scooters would participate in the USA Rugby Division II tournament even if invited. The club’s financial health, dependent on team-sponsored bake sales and car washes, was in a woeful state as the postseason approached.

“We didn’t even have money for the round of 16,” said senior co-captain Morgan McLaughlin. “We got lucky because it was at Penn State, only two hours away. Last year we had to travel to Michigan, so it didn’t cost nearly as much this year.”

The Scooters reigned at the PSU regional, advancing deeper into the national tournament than ever before with a 24-7 victory over Salisbury (Maryland) in the Sweet 16. They followed with a 28-7 quarterfinal win against Davenport (Michigan) to punch their ticket to the Final Four. There was only one hitch: The Scooters calculated they would need $25,000 for the trip. They set up an account on the GoFundMe website, spread the word, and crossed their fingers.

Fortunately, the numbers—just as they had on the scoreboard all season long—quickly added up in their favor.

“We got so much support early on it wasn’t a question if we were going or not,” Lucchese said. “We had checks and money coming in from outside the website, too. We got support from families, friends, alumni—there were even alumni rugby players from West Virginia and Penn State who donated to us. It was really awesome to see everyone and everything come together.”

Alas, Cal State-Northridge shattered IUP’s title dreams in the semifinals on May 10, Graduation Day back East for many of the Scooters. The Matadors hauled down IUP senior Latrisha Morales after a long run, mere yards short of a game-tying try, in the final minute to preserve their 15-10 victory.

The Scooters, stung by their first defeat of the season, regrouped to win the consolation game against Florida International, 19-17.

Tori Wagner tried to avoid a tackle in the Scooters’ semifinal match against Cal State-Northridge

Tori Wagner tried to avoid a tackle in the Scooters’ semifinal match against Cal State-Northridge.

“We were really down on Saturday, but we just had to remember we could still finish third in the nation,” Capoferri said. “And being a small school from Pennsylvania that no one in California ever heard of, not having a coach, having raised so much money just to get there, it was such an amazing feeling to win the next day and finish third. It was the best feeling in the world.”

IUP trailed 17-12 with five minutes left when McLaughlin scored a try and added the conversion, then held off a last-gasp Florida International threat to prevail. When the gun sounded, the delirious Scooters collapsed into a squealing heap at midfield.

“Our last game together, it was just like you had to leave everything out on the field,” Lucchese said. “So we gave it our last 80 minutes of love and rugby, and we worked as a team and came out on top. We were so excited. We didn’t think another team would be so excited to get third in the nation.”

Their exuberance was understandable. The club program so humbly launched in 1996—“Our first jerseys were just white T-shirts with numbers spray-painted on them,” Capoferri said—had left its stamp on the national rugby scene. The Scooters penned an improbable feel-good story and created memories to last a lifetime.

“Fifty years from now, I’m going to be telling my children’s children about this season and about IUP rugby,” Capoferri said. “These girls are my family. We have such a bond. To have done something like this with them is something that will stick with me forever.”

More from the Summer 2014 Issue of IUP Magazine

Reining In the Party

Reining In the Party

Members of the campus community, including President Michael Driscoll, talk about the challenges IUP and other universities face with excessive partying and what they’re doing to combat it.

Exploring the Cold, Creating a Spark

Exploring the Cold, Creating a Spark

For more than 20 years, alumnus Rick McMaster has shared his passion for science with hundreds of thousands of children in central Texas.

Namedroppers | Achievements | Mentors

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