Stories of UCSC rugby: Leslie Riehl and Pam Krone, the first women on the team

1976 UCSC Rugby Club gather for a group photo 

UC Santa Cruz rugby club alumni are hosting a reunion on May 27th and 28th, inviting alumni and current rugby club members to reconnect, celebrate, and play a game on the East field. The reunion will honor the legacy of the women’s rugby team from 2006 to 2013, who were competitively successful year after year. In addition, a banner commemorating the 2006 women’s national championship team will be hung on the athletics and recreation field. 

UC Santa Cruz’s rugby club was formed in 1967, two years after the opening of the campus. It is one of—if not the—longest-standing sports clubs in campus history and has taken on many different forms. 

The club was formed by Duncan Graham and Dan Porter, and coached by physics professor Ron Ruby. 

By 1974, Dan Porter was coaching a team of about 30 men and two women. The two women on the team—Leslie Riehl (Cowell ’78, Mathematics) and Pam Krone (Cowell ’75)—are known as legends in the UCSC rugby community, making their stand as women in the sport years before the women’s rugby club formed in 1979. 

Michelle Sit, the 2006 women’s rugby captain, is thrilled to meet Riehl and Krone.

“I can’t wait to meet them,” Sit said. “I hear their stories, and it’s almost like an urban legend. I’m so excited to meet them.”

Leslie Riehl and Pam Krone 

For alumna Leslie Riehl (known to her classmates as Leslie Hoffman), seeing the UCSC rugby club running drills on the field was familiar. She went to boarding school in England and was accustomed to the sport. When she joined UCSC’s rugby club, she expected to join a women’s team, but instead found herself in a tackle sport surrounded by men twice her size. 

It wasn’t just that UC Santa Cruz did not have a women’s rugby team, but that women’s collegiate rugby was a fresh concept in the United States. By 1974, less than 20 university women’s rugby teams had formed in the U.S.. 

Regardless, Porter and the roughly 30 men that made up the team in 1974 urged Riehl and Krone to keep coming back. 

“From the minute you got there, everybody was happy,” Riehl said. “They wanted you to come back, they wanted you to play, and they wanted you to play well. There was never a moment when I felt they wanted me to fail or leave. I just felt like I was one of the members of the team.” 

Riehl played rugby for her first and second years at UCSC but left to focus on her studies in her latter years at the university. Krone played on the team for one year before transferring to Stanford University in her third year. Both women said that the years they spent with the rugby club were filled with immeasurable fun. 

Unlike Riehl, Krone had not seen rugby before and was unfamiliar with the sport. Her first interaction with the team was a game of flag rugby where players pull flags attached to their waists to signify a tackle rather than physically tackling the player. It wasn’t until Krone’s first couple of practices that she realized the type of tackle sport she had gotten herself into. 

“We were playing scrimmages and tackling each other, and that was about the time I learned that it was a tackle sport—but by that time, I was hooked,” Krone said. “It was just so much fun, and I loved the game. I loved running around, and I really enjoyed the people that were playing. So I said, ‘well, I’ll just do it.’” 

Both Riehl and Krone played the hooker position and were routinely swapped out during games. Riehl was known for her strength, while Krone for her speed. The UCSC rugby club played against the likes of Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and others. 

One game, in particular, stood out amongst the rest in 1974— the Stanford 10s tournament. For the first time that season, a team refused to play against UCSC because women were on the team. 

“That was the only game where somebody made an issue of it,” Krone recalled. “Basically, they just said, ‘we don’t want to hurt them, and we don’t want to have to treat them special.’” 

Once UCSC coach Dan Porter confirmed with the referee that no rule prohibited women from playing, Stanford and UCSC played. Playing as the hooker in the game, Riehl was at the front of the scrum. Her job was to hook the ball with her foot back into the legs of her fellow scrum-mates where her scrum-half would retrieve the ball and pass it off to backs to run with the ball. 

At one point in the game, Stanford's scrum-half and captain, attempting to send the ball along to his backs, was tackled by Riehl, setting up an opportunity for her team to advance.

Former UCSC rugby player Peter Gelpi recalled Riehl tackling the captain, altering the trajectory of the game.

“We were all very excited by the fact that she tackled somebody who had been involved in objecting to her being on the field,” Gelpi said. “The whole play of the game shifted after that; she had the whole team behind her.” 

That day, UCSC won against Stanford. The majority of UCSC’s rugby club members were playing the sport for the very first time. Competitively, the club lost a majority of its games but typically held its own against Stanford and UC Davis. 

Fast forward roughly 50 years later, and both the men’s and women’s rugby teams at UCSC are some of the campus’s most competitive sports clubs. 

“I’m so glad that it’s grown and flourished since I was there,” Krone said. “It’s a fun sport. It’s a great way to get exercise, it creates good team camaraderie, and there’s just so much that is learned and gained from being in rugby. I’m thrilled they’re doing well and are very successful, but even if they were just doing it for fun, I still think that would be great.”