Mauling misogyny: Marin scores with first women’s rugby team

October 3, 2022

A roaring cheer erupts from the huddle in the middle of the field, and rugby players disperse to their respective positions, preparing for one final scrimmage of the night. Each has a fierce glare with a hint of anticipation. Tweet! The athletes snap into action, charging down the field. The ball carrier swerves, grass flying behind them, edging to score, while opponents rush to tackle them ahead. Finally, one defender makes solid contact, firmly wrapping their arms around the legs of the carrier, and, with a grunt, completes the tackle, pulling the player to the ground. Turnover.

Following through with the drill, Sophomore Lily Perez corners her teammate.

Power, authority and physicality are on display in any rugby match.

It doesn’t matter that all the players in this scrimmage are women. 

Welcome to the Marin Highlander Rugby Club’s only women’s team: the Lady Highlanders. The Highlanders have had men’s rugby teams in the county for nearly 40 years. Last year, in November 2021, the club re-started its efforts to initiate a women’s team, their first attempt cut short by COVID-19. Kevin Sullivan, a life-long rugby player passionate about getting women involved in the sport, took the lead.

“The reason I coach women’s rugby is because I’m trying to undo 3,500 years of systemic misogyny one tackle at a time,” Sullivan said.  “This is the only full contact sport for women. And here’s the best part: it’s the only sport where the rules for men and women are no different. In MMA, basketball, flag football and even soccer, there are different rules for men and women. Not rugby.” 

Women’s rugby is finally growing fast across the world and USA — in fact, female players currently make up over 25 percent of the rugby population. In that 25 percent is Lily Perez, a Redwood sophomore, who, along with her sister, were two of the first players to join the Lady Highlanders team. 

“My brother and dad had been playing since they were kids. [Rugby] was a big thing in my family. But me and my sister never really played,” Perez said. “Then, about one year ago,  [Coach Sullivan] started hosting practices every other week on Sundays … but the first practice was just me and my sister and Coach Sullivan. We worked for four months on building the team.” 

Gesturing the proper tackle form, Coach Kevin Sullivan provides guidance at practice.

The Lady Highlanders began recruiting women from all schools and ages, Sullivan welcoming anyone, regardless of athletic experience. Players learned about the basics, like how points are commonly scored in the game when someone touches the ball down in the opponent’s in-goal area, called a try. Sullivan also guided them through the types of contact and passing drills. (In rugby, unlike football, you can only pass backwards.)

Despite thoroughly explaining the game to all newcomers, recruitment wasn’t easy at first as many athletes in Marin are already locked into another sport by high school. Eventually, the Lady Highlanders attracted raw talent across all schools and ages. 

Paige Barta, a Redwood senior, joined the Highlanders from a highly competitive soccer team as a top goalie in the county. The cutthroat dedication soccer required had alienated her from other activities. Rugby felt like a breath of fresh air.

“Once I started not enjoying soccer as much, I feel rugby brought me back in. It’s really rare to find a sport in high school that you can pick up and just start playing,” Barta said. “Rugby taught me that sports are meant to be fun. It’s not meant to be something that consumes your entire life like soccer did.”

Sydney Gottesman, a Tamalpais High School (Tam) senior, had a similar experience to Barta. She became part of the Highlanders because of the distinct atmosphere rugby offered in comparison to the toxicity of her nearly decade long career in soccer.

Swerving past teammate Siena Hayes, Perez aims to score with the ball.

“I showed up to my first game [with the Highlanders] and I scored a good amount of times. But [what really struck me] was just the environment itself. It was so positive that even girls on the other team were so supportive of me. I would tackle someone and they’d be like ‘Oh my gosh, that was such a good hit!’ and [they’d] pat my back and help me up. I was like wow, that’s really different,” Gottesman said. “I walked out of that rugby game, called my [soccer] coach and was like ‘Hey, I need to talk to you about something next practice.’ I proceeded to quit soccer the next practice.”

Rugby is unique in this type of team environment — it has some of the most aggressive play on the field, but out of the game zone has a strong sense of community. Gottesman described her favorite tradition of “shooting the boot” after scoring her first try. Gottesman ripped her cleat off, filled it with water, and chugged, cheers roaring around her from both opponents and teammates.

 “Trust me, it’s really gross,” Gottesman said. “But it’s such an honor.”

With this feeling of community, Siena Hayes, a junior from Marin Catholic (MC), who signed up for the Highlanders because she had always wanted to play football, has watched as the team has grown considerably in just a year.

“We all started from scratch and all came from different [school] environments. We created our own here. It’s just been amazing to see our team flourish,” Hayes said. “I remember when it was three of us. And now we have close to 15. That’s crazy.”

This past summer the Lady Highlanders attended the Northern American Rugby Invitational for Sevens in Salt Lake City. Photo courtesy of Celeste Perez.

For their preliminary season last year, the Lady Highlanders made it to Utah for the Northern American Rugby Invitational for Sevens.

“We did alright, got our butts handed to us [in some games],” Coach Sullivan said. “But we’re still rookies and it was still fun.”

Following this successful first season, the Lady Highlanders were invited to be in a school-only Bay Area women’s league that includes St. Mary’s and Bishop O’Dowd. Since they don’t have enough players yet at a single respective school, the school league is giving them time to build up recruitment. The goal is to eventually have a rugby sevens team at each respective high school in the county, from MC to San Marin, in the fall, and have a rugby fifteens season in the spring.

The Lady Highlanders practice on Tuesday and Thursday evenings at Tam. They’re preparing for the start of the next club season on Oct. 1. The team is still small, accepting all players, but matches the speed of women’s rugby growth globally.

 “Right now it’s still an emerging sport. We’re really trying to get girls out there. It’s an amazing opportunity because contact sports for girls is really rare,” Barta said.

The Lady Highlanders are changing the playbook, both on what women can do on the field and the distinct community off of it. In the end, Gottesman reiterated that rugby is open to everyone. 

“You just need to put yourself out there and take the risk [to try rugby]. And let me tell you, it’s 100 percent worth it. I have never been happier playing a sport in my life,” Gottesman said. “Rugby culture is the best culture in the world and I’m so glad we’re bringing that to Marin.”

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