Stories of UCSC rugby: The Women’s Rugby Football Club, 1979–2022

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2022 Women's Rugby Football Club 
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2006 Women's Rugby Football Club 
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1980 Women's Rugby Football Club 

For the first time since 2007, the UC Santa Cruz Women’s Rugby Football Club finished their season in second place at the Pacific Western Championship match. Their 2022 season came full circle, winning against the Santa Clara University team—who had defeated the Banana Slugs in their first game—in the first round of playoffs.

Reflecting on the team’s season, UCSC Women’s Rugby Football Club President Diana Ochoa (Oakes ’23, Environmental Science) said the 30-member team worked tirelessly to achieve their competitively successful season following a year and a half of remote learning. 

“We really came a long way, and getting to see the team win second place and go to playoffs was such a cool experience,” Ochoa said. “It was great to give that success to the coaches, too, because they worked so hard for it for multiple years. It was just such an amazing season, and we’re so much more excited for next year.”

Ochoa is in her second year at UCSC and plans to graduate in 2023 with a bachelor’s in environmental science. She was one of two members to join the club during the 2020–2021 academic year and now serves as the club’s president. In her role, Ochoa frequently communicates with the UCSC Athletics and Recreation Department and prepares the team for game days. 

In September, Ochoa tore her ACL, and she hasn’t been able to take to the field this year, but she is grateful to serve as the club’s president off the field. She said the rugby team at UC Santa Cruz is her family. 

“Since the second I walked into my first practice, I knew those girls were my family,” she said. “The coaches have really helped facilitate the feeling that we’re all a family, and we’re here to help each other. We’re here to play rugby first and foremost, but also finding that community through rugby has been amazing.”

Sentiments similar to Ochoa’s are shared across generations of rugby alumni of UCSC. The UCSC rugby alumni are known as the Black and Gold Society—representative of the color of the players’ uniforms—and they actively support both the men’s and women’s rugby clubs at UCSC. The alumni contribute to a rich, 55-year history of rugby at UCSC, and players often remain close friends for years after their graduation. 

Deborah Newburn (Cowell ’81, Environmental Studies and American Studies) was part of the original Women’s Rugby Football Club at UCSC and is joining a trip to the Grand Canyon this summer with a handful of her former teammates. She said they often plan trips together and occasionally take day hikes and cook breakfast and dinner together. 

“What’s interesting is that these folks weren’t in my major, and yet they are the friends who are left over from my UC Santa Cruz days,” Newburn said. “Those are the only people from my university days who I see—not my college roommates, not my dorm mates, and not my colleagues from my major.” 

Women’s rugby was in its infancy in the early ’70s, and by 1979, teams had begun to pop up in the Bay Area, including at UC Berkeley and Stanford, as well as San Jose and San Francisco community teams. 

UCSC’s Women’s Rugby Football Club got its start in 1979 with roughly six members, hand-me-down jerseys from the men’s team, and little financial support. Men’s coach Dan Porter oscillated between the two groups, and often the women were left without a coach. Regardless, the women on the team did everything they could to make their season happen. They fundraised for food and transportation and used their own cars for away games. 

First-ever UCSC Women’s Rugby Football Club Captain Martha Brown (Kresge ’81, Biology and Sociology) said the men’s team gave the women’s team enormous support when they were first starting. 

“It wasn’t like we were starting from absolute scratch,” she said. “There was a long history of rugby at the university at that point, since the men’s team had been going for 12 years or so. So we were building on something they’d already created, but taking it in a different direction.” 

The women’s team didn’t win a single game their first year, but by the second year, the women’s rugby club was fielding a full team of 15 players, and by its third year, they even had some extra players. UCSC’s women’s rugby club was swiftly increasing their standing in their league and had immeasurable amounts of fun while doing so.  

“We all still stay in touch and hang out and do trips together, and it really speaks to what a powerful activity rugby was for us,” Brown said. “It’s sort of a bonding experience when you get out there and rely on each other to make it happen instead of relying on a coach or an administrator or the backing of the university. It made those bonds even stronger.” 

UCSC powerhouse: Women’s rugby 2006–2013 

The years 2006–2013 were the most competitively successful seasons so far in the history of women’s rugby at UCSC. From winning the national title in 2006, to taking silver in the country at the Division II Women’s Rugby National Championship in 2007, to making it to the final four in 2010, and the elite eight in 2013, women’s rugby quickly became a powerhouse and one of the most competitively successful sports at UC Santa Cruz. But the teams that were finding newfound success didn’t lose the camaraderie and inclusivity that was tightly woven into the history of the sport at UCSC.  

“Winning wasn’t everything for us, but we had high expectations of ourselves,” said 2006 UCSC Women’s Rugby Football Club Captain Michelle Sit (Oakes ’08, Feminist Studies). “I think as players, we had a lot of trust in each other.”

“We found community and really found a sense of identity for ourselves,” Sit added. “Speaking for myself, I found a core sense of identity, identifying as a queer person and having support and camaraderie from my peers. It’s just an inclusive and accepting place; it’s very much a space where you could be yourself and find a sense of belonging.” 

Similar to the first women’s team in 1979, Sit said the 2006 team found themselves bonded not only through the rigor of participating in a tackle sport, but through doing everything in their power to make the season happen. The team frequently fundraised to participate in games across the country and state, and sold calendars to make it to their national championship game. 

The 2006 women’s team was the first to win the DII Collegiate 15’s National Championship for the UCSC Rugby Football Club.

But the 2006 national winning season wouldn’t have been possible without the team’s humble origins, Sit said. In 2004—Sit’s first year—the group found themselves without a coach. Instead, they were taught by their captains, using shoes as cones and a water bottle as a ball.  

“We had to build from the ground up, and I think there’s something to be said for that,” Sit said.

Emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2022 women’s rugby team found themselves in a rebuilding year that parallels UCSC rugby history. With the support of their coaches, trust in one another, and a hoard of dedicated alumni, the 2022 team put in the work to secure their second-place title. 

“This is such an amazing team,” said 2022 rugby president Diana Ochoa. “I want to emphasize how hard it really is on your body to play rugby, and the fact that these 30 girls come out to play means the world to me.”