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A Test of Teamwork

Athletes readily acknowledge the importance of teamwork on the field. It can be even more critical off the field, as seventeen members of the IUP Women’s Rugby Club learned the morning of April 5.

The players, traveling in a caravan of cars to a match at Shippensburg, ground to a halt behind a twenty-vehicle pileup on the Pennsylvania Turnpike that left four dead and twenty-eight injured. Their subsequent actions at the scene brought them the Pennsylvania State Police Outstanding Citizenship Award, the highest honor the department bestows on civilians.

IUP Rugby Team

Front row, left to right: Karen Reidel, Ariel Baum, Rachel Stern, Audra Turner, and Molly Perchinski. Back row, from left: Trooper Joseph Horton, Justine Metzger, Stephanie DeHaven, Crystel Brenning, Capt. David Points (nominating officer), Col. Jeffrey Miller (State Police commissioner), Jessica Scheetz, Amanda Cobb, Christina May, and Sgt. Thomas Peters. Not pictured: Lauren Culley, Kristen Double, Erin Harkins, Joeylyn Miller, Jaime Noble, and Jennavieve Sloan

“Without regard for their personal safety, these young women aided crash victims and helped prevent other collisions on the fog-shrouded roadway,” State Police Commissioner Jeffrey B. Miller said during a ceremony at the police academy in Hershey on July 30. “These women worked together as a team when it really counted. Each and every one is a hero.”

Senior co-captain Christina May recalls coming to an abrupt stop behind a tractor-trailer, which obscured her view of the road ahead. May’s initial concern was that a lengthy delay might cause the team to arrive late for its match. But all thoughts of rugby were wiped out in a matter of minutes.

“I decided to get out and walk up the side of the road to check what was going on,” she recalled. “It was so foggy you could hardly see. Then I saw a tractor-trailer with flames shooting out of it. There were explosions, and things were flying everywhere. Then I heard people screaming and crying.”

May was in tears herself by the time she returned to her teammates, shaken by what sophomore Ariel Baum described as “just a horrific scene.”

“There was fire, there were explosions, and cars were piled up on top of each other,” said senior co-captain Amanda Cobb. “It was extremely scary. But we didn’t think about the danger. We kicked into action, and we all really worked well together and helped as many people as we could.”

Seventeen parts functioned as a unit, “like a machine,” Cobb noted.

Christina May

Christina May deals with the newfound celebrity of the rugby women.

“We just pulled together as a team,” said senior Kristen Double. “No one questioned what they should do; they just did whatever they could. We flagged down cars to warn them about the accident. We helped pull people out of their vehicles and calmed people who couldn’t get out. And after the paramedics arrived, we carried stretchers, carried supplies—pretty much anything we could do to help.”

Emergency responders recruited the IUP players when it became apparent the injured far outnumbered medical personnel.

“A guy ran past us and asked if any of us knew CPR or first aid,” said May. “Luckily, three-quarters of us are CPR- or first aid-certified. He came back with a whole bunch of kits and paramedic gear and equipment. He gave us some gloves and said, ‘Go help anyone you can.’”

The team stayed at the accident scene for approximately four hours and even assisted turnpike workers in clearing debris from the road once the injured were removed. The match with Shippensburg was canceled. Even had they continued on, the players were in no frame of mind for rugby.

“We were in a situation that no one wants to be in, and we saw a lot of things that people don’t want to see and shouldn’t have to see,” said May. “After, we prayed for the people who didn’t make it, and for ourselves. We were amazed there were seventeen of us and none of us was injured.”

For their invaluable assistance, Baum, Cobb, Double, May, and teammates Crystal Brenning, Lauren Cully, Stefanie DeHaven, Erin Harkins, Justine Metzger, Joeylyn Miller, Jaime Noble, Molly Perchinski, Karen Reidel, Jessica Scheetz, Jennavieve Sloan, Rachel Stern, and Audra Turner were presented the Outstanding Citizenship Award, which recognizes actions that must have involved “a substantial risk of serious injury or loss of life to the recipient.”

Reader’s Digest also recognized the players’ efforts with an article in the September edition. Given the publication’s widespread popularity—it features the largest circulation of any magazine in the world, reaching in excess of a hundred million readers in more than a hundred countries—the story of IUP’s heroes has been disseminated around the globe.

“We didn’t even think about awards or publicity that day,” said Cobb. “We just acted on instinct. It was great how we all came together. It wasn’t any one person that stood out—we were all helping, we were all doing our part.”

In other words, the IUP players relied on exceptional teamwork. Only this time, a lot more than the outcome of a rugby match hinged on their performance.