You probably saw all the hoopla earlier this year about Cal Poly Humboldt’s rugby team kicking butt at nationals. Well, in other rugby news, last weekend the Claremont Colleges women’s rugby team – the Foxes – won the College Rugby Association of America’s D2 National Championship for the second time. And though that might not usually be news of particular interest in Humboldt County, it turns out that one member of the national champion team is born-and-raised Arcata gal, 18-year-old Flannery Warner.
Warner, who graduated from Arcata High, just finished up her freshman year at Scripps College – one of five Claremont Colleges that have members on the team. So this was her first year playing rugby for the Foxes, which made it especially exciting for her to be part of winning nationals. In fact, Warner told the Outpost, it was actually her first year playing rugby at all.
“At Arcata High I was a competitive swimmer,” Warner said in a recent phone interview. “And then I decided when I went to college that I was kind of burnt out with swimming and I wanted to try something new. I knew that this team had won nationals the previous year. And so that of course was like a little bit intimidating, but I was like, ‘why not?’”
One of the nice things about the rugby team, Warner explained, is that anyone can join, even if they don’t have rugby experience. Since rugby is not a hugely popular sport in America, compared to American football or other sports, a lot of high schools do not have a rugby team. So many of the players are athletes coming from another sport, like soccer or basketball, and they learn how to play from the coaches and senior team members.
After new players join the team, the process is sort of “self-selecting,” Warner said, because many people realize within the first few days of training that rugby isn’t really for them. “A lot of people don’t continue because they realize they don’t like being tackled and all of that stuff,” Warner said.
But Warner said that even though she was a little wary of the intense physical contact of the sport at first, she discovered that she really likes it. As a swimmer Warner did a lot of weight training, which she said was something she always really enjoyed. One of the things that made her interested in transitioning to rugby is that it’s a sport that really emphasizes being physically strong.
OK, so here is the part where this reporter who knows nothing about rugby (or, really, sports in general) tries to explain a little bit about how rugby is played. If you are a rugby aficionado, just go ahead and scroll past this part and save me the embarrassment. During a rugby match, there are 15 players per team on the field, who are grouped into eight “forwards” and seven “backs.” One of the jobs of the forwards is to form the scrum, which involves the forwards from each team packing closely together with their heads down and attempting to gain possession of the ball. Warner generally plays as one of the “props,” whose role is to support the “jumper” as they compete for the ball.
Evan Wollen, one of the team’s coaches, told the Outpost that props have to be very strong and usually have a larger body type, so it is not a position commonly given to a freshman. But Wollen said that Warner is very strong and has worked very hard to prove her capabilities.
“Her statistics in the weightroom really improved over the year,” Wollen said in a recent interview. “She didn’t just show up and get that position. She worked her way into it.”
Of course, Wollen is very excited that the team won nationals for the second year in a row and is impressed with all of the team members, many of whom had never played rugby before joining the team. There are 40 members on the team and 25 on the roster for each game. In the nationals match against Howard University, Warner was put in as an alternate for the last 18 minutes of the game, Wollen said, and got to be a part of winning the title. As a particularly determined team member, Warner was always trying to figure out a way to be on the field.
“Her dedication was kind of an example for the other freshmen,” Wollen said. “She asks me at the end of pretty much every practice what she can do to improve. Trying to stay ahead of a player like Flannery is a challenge. But a good challenge.”
Growing up in the hippie-town capital, Arcata, Warner’s drive seems to come from living in a very sports-centric family. Warner’s older and younger brother both also play team sports, and her father, Tim Warner, is one of the regular announcers for the Humboldt Crabs. The whole Warner family has spent many summers working at the Crabs games, and Flannery said she will be working with them again while she is home for the summer.
Other than working at the ballpark, Warner said that she plans to spend most of her summer back in Humboldt catching up on rest. In addition to playing rugby, Warner also has a full schoolwork load and is planning on majoring in biology and doing pre-med. With the team’s final game on the weekend right before finals, Warner and her teammates were stretched pretty thin, using most of their downtime in Houston to study in their hotel rooms. The team really didn’t even have enough time to celebrate their win.
But Warner said that traveling with her teammates was still a lot of fun and she is so excited to have been a part of winning the D2 nationals. Though she plans on going into the medical field after school, Warner said she plans to play rugby throughout her college career.
“It was super fun…” Warner said. “I think I would have been a lot more socially isolated without the team. I think that if I hadn’t had the team and the friendship of the team, [freshman year] would have been a very different experience.”