Editor's note: This is the fourth story in a series of articles chronicling the growth of Guam rugby, and how the sport has received international acclaim, in part, due to Mount Saint Mary's University head coach Farrah Douglas and former Team Guam player and coach Peter Baggetta. With 12 Guamanian student-athletes playing NCAA D1 rugby, the sport has emerged as an avenue to higher education, and an opportunity to play at the next level. In this series, The Guam Daily Post will look at the past, present and future of Guam rugby, and will feature the island's athletes who are making names for themselves in collegiate rugby. This article takes a look at a valuable resource and consultancy firm that specializes getting high-schoolers into college.
With 12 players competing in NCAA Division I rugby, Guamanians are putting the island on the map at college’s highest level.
But, how did this happen? And, how can more of Guam’s student-athletes take their game to the next level, and even get the their education paid for?
With tremendous commitment and dedication from the student-athlete, the answer is simple. Get good grades, excel athletically, and opportunities can present themselves.
“The No. 1 way” to “get the best package possible is by doing well in school,” said Karen Fong Donoghue, owner and founder of The Rugger’s Edge, a Denver, Colo-based consulting firm specializing in getting high school rugby players into college.
While there is no such thing as a full-ride rugby scholarship, a combination of athletic, merit, and other financial aid incentives available can make getting into one of the 961 different stateside varsity, varsity club, and club programs attainable. By stacking scholarships and financial aid packages, depending on the program, costs can be greatly reduced, or even eliminated.
But with so many options and very few colleges looking at Guam’s athletes, choosing the right college can be daunting.
For 11 years, Fong Donoghue has made it her mission to help aspiring and talented high school rugby players get into the college of their dreams.
As a former USA All-American rugby player, former USA Rugby D1 competitor, World Rugby Educator and Trainer, and a master’s degree in counseling with a credential in high school guidance, Fong Donoghue’s more than 20 years or experience is a valuable asset for any rugby player and their family.
While her services aren’t free, Fong Donoghue offers a free 30-minute consultation to learn about the student-athlete’s desires, capabilities, and to see if they are the right fit.
If cost is an issue, her book, the 6th edition of “College Playbook: An In-Depth Guide to College Admission and Rugby Recruiting” can be downloaded for $19.99.
“A lot of the process can be done without my help,” she said. “I’m not someone who says, ‘I’ve got the keys to the whole thing.’”
“Some families like a lot of support and want help through the process,” she added. “I think that it’s perfectly fine to buy a guidebook and follow the steps.”
Academics come first
Len Calvo, whose son, Matias Calvo, plays on the Dartmouth College men’s rugby team, said that Fong Donoghue is a wealth of information and worth the investment.
During the consultation, the first thing Fong Donoghue looks for is academic achievement.
“When a rugby student-athlete comes to me, the first think we are talking about is academics,” she said. “Actually, we don’t even talk about rugby for 90% of the conversation. We’re talking about academic profiles.”
Grades, test scores, activities, leadership, and character are what I am trying to assess, she said.
“If the foundation isn’t solid, I tell lots of families, ‘don’t waste your time with me,’” she added.
Apart from scheduling a consultation, Fong Donoghue recommends that student-athletes lay out their goals, create a video presentation that illustrates versatility, not just highlights, and prepare a rugby resume. While she says that attending camps and playing in tournaments in front of scouts is a bonus, it is not necessary, especially for those without the financial means.
“If I’m being really honest, … if I’ve got a family who is struggling and they're scraping money, I’d say, 'there isn’t one camp or tournament they need to go to,” Fong Donoghue said.
"The pool of applicants is fairly small,” and “if they’re able to get film, ‘do they need to spend thousands of dollars to fly them to a camp?’ - Absolutely not,” she said.
There’s no guarantee that just because you fly yourself out you’re going to get money, she said.
As the NCAA is expanding its blueprint in women’s rugby from 23 teams to 40, the minimum number required to play for a national championship, the time has never been better for Guam’s female high school ruggers to consider playing college rugby.
“There are more teams growing, and there are not that many female rugby players,” Fong Donoghue said. “It’s kind of the sweet spot, you’re getting in at the very beginning of a rising NCAA sport.”
Because of quick, rapid expansion, coaches are increasing their normal search parameters, and that is good for Guam, many thousands of miles away from the U.S. mainland.
“A lot of these programs … are willing to search outside a typical recruiting box because they - kind of - have to,” Fong Donoghue said. “Women’s rugby, here, in the U.S., it’s growing, but I still don’t think it’s at the point where you’re going to sustain all those programs.
“Obviously, that’s why so many teams are going outside of the U.S. to recruit players.”
Farah Douglas, the women’s rugby head coach at Mount Saint Mary’s University, has recently recruited six Guamanians to help build a high-caliber, winning program. In 2021, depending on the COVID-19 pandemic situation, she is planning a recruiting trip to Guam.
Guam gives players a head start
On Guam, competitive rugby starts in middle school, and the three-year head start gives island rugby players an advantage over their stateside counterparts, she recognized.
“Guam players start playing flag rugby in middle school and, then when they hit high school, they are playing sevens,” Douglas said. “So, when they come to the university setting here, they’re coming off the back of playing seven years of a very open style of rugby.”
Douglas, who has been at The Mount’s helm for three years, has relied on her Guamanians to turn a struggling program into a national powerhouse.
Guamanians “bring that physical type of game,” she said. “They like to run with the ball a lot.
"In general, I see them struggle less with decision making, and I run a system that relies very heavily on the ability to decision-make on the fly, under pressure.”
With ample opportunity at next level, especially for women, universities are offering attractive financial incentives.
“If I had a girl that was a good athlete, I’d make her focus on rugby, get her grades up, get into Harvard, and it would be free,” Calvo said.
A vast majority of NCAA programs, like Harvard University, Dartmouth, Bowdoin College are need-blind institutions and can cater to low-income families.
“If they admit you, and want you to come in, they will make it affordable,” Calvo said. “A lot of people don’t know that if you get into Stanford (University), and your family makes less than $120,000 a year, your tuition is free, same thing with the Ivy League.”