Editor's note: This is the third 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.
Mara Tamayo, an incoming sophomore at Mount St. Mary’s University, reflected on her freshman season playing Division I collegiate rugby in Emmitsburg, Maryland – a long way from her rugby roots as a middle schooler playing for the Santa Barbara Spartans and later, the Okkodo High Bulldogs.
In her season debut, Tamayo joined a talented group of Guam athletes on the Mountaineer roster for the 2019-2020 season. Along with Guam’s Jalana Garcia, Hanna Rhodes-Rojas and Lavona Aromin, Tamayo became an integral part of the team’s game schemes and helping to push them to a winning formula before COVID-19 cut their season short in mid-March.
Making the transition
Fiercely competitive despite being one of the smaller athletes on the field, Tamayo said playing at the collegiate level requires life balance, time management, discipline and mental tenacity. Aside from the physicality of the sport and the size of her opponents, Tamayo said she found herself having to adjust every aspect of her routine to fit in with The Mount.
“Coming from Guam, girls are only exposed to 7s. During the fall of 2019, we played 15s – the strategy and game-like situation is completely different,” she said, adding there’s more contact and physicality plays a big role in the game, unlike “running and weaving through people like how we’re used to in 7s.”
Buying into the rigorous discipline and physical fitness regimen has allowed Tamayo to find her space, carving a niche perfect for her skillset within the Mountaineer game. Admitting that it’s still a process, Tamayo has fully embraced what it takes to make her team successful and ensure she’s a working cog in the team’s grand plan.
“Coming in to The Mount with only rugby 7s under my belt, I had to adapt to 15s quickly,” Tamayo said. “I have to give all credits to coach (Meredith McAlister) and coach Farrah (Douglas) for their patience and mentorship to help me fully understand my role as a scrumhalf. … Like a sponge, I absorbed every information they had to teach in order to fully understand my role as nine.”
Douglas, the head coach at MSMU, commended Tamayo’s ability to adapt and perform, handling the physical and mental aspects of the game.
“We challenged her,” Douglas said. “She came into 15s much like most of the Guam girls do, with not a lot of 15s experience. Primarily, they play 7s.”
Starting at nine for the entire year, Douglas said Tamayo played a pivotal position in the scheme of 15s.
“You are part of that decision-making spine on the field and you are communicating with the eight-man, your fly-half. Often, you back three players,” Douglas said. “She proved to have great game-management, great game-understanding.”
Tamayo’s fearlessness and intelligence made her crucial to the Mountaineer offense, Douglas said, adding she was “very effective at getting our forwards and backs to work in sync, and it allows us to play our systems both in attack and defense with a lot of defense.”
“She played nine as if she were a back-row player,” Douglas said, complimenting Tamayo’s ability to adapt and make game-time decisions. “She’s fearless, smart … She has really great field-vision. And, much like her Guam teammates, she adapts quickly to the picture that’s happening in front of her.”
Douglas said, like Tamayo, the Guam girls added a new dimension to the Mountaineer game play.
“If I had to give characteristics that all four of them have brought to us, they are creative, physically powerful, adaptive thinkers,” she said.
Finding balance as a DI athlete
For Tamayo, elevating her game quickly was crucial from Day 1. Faced with larger opponents on one side of the field and gifted athletes on her team, Tamayo said she realized that she would have to rely on her work ethic and discipline if she wanted to make the rotation.
“(It’s) no joke … You have to fight for your spot every single day, there can never be a time to slack unless you wanna sit on the bench that weekend,” she said.
The strength and conditioning was on levels she hadn’t seen in all her years as a young athlete on island.
“Playing collegiate you have to prepare both your mind and your body for the physical stresses that your body will have to endure in the sport of rugby,” she said.
Up at 4 a.m. for 5 a.m. skills practice then weights with MSMU’s athletic trainer and an evening field session bookended her daily classes in health science and physical therapy.
“As a student athlete, the biggest adjustment I had was balancing all my workload with the crazy rugby schedule,” she said. “Taking up my major (Health Science PT) isn’t easy with all the science classes and labs filled with everyday homework. Finding time to complete assignments and still focus on perfecting my game had to be a big adjustment for me.”
Despite the rigors and physical and mental challenges, playing for The Mount has been a blessing, she said.
“Coming from a small island, it’s a culture shock and a big transition from island life to the East Coast way of life. In Emmitsburg, there’s a lot of farms and corn fields, rather than the beaches that an island girl is used to,” she said, adding there are huge upsides to playing off island. “There is more exposure, experiences, and bigger opportunities; whether it would be through athletics or academics.”
Calling it a “life-changing experience,” Tamayo said, “I love the dorm life, the life as a collegiate athlete, and the classes they had to offer. All the friends I’ve encountered along the way are definitely the friends I’ll cherish for a lifetime.”
Tamayo admits to some homesickness, but having people from Guam “makes it feel like you’re not so far from home,” she said.
“I love the sisterhood and the family environment that the team brings on and off the field,” she said. “The Mount Women’s Rugby Team has made me feel at home from the get go, especially with Coach Farrah always being supportive and understanding of our unique situation as Guam girls being so far away from home.”
Q: How has attending MSMU allowed you to grow as a person and as an athlete?
A: Being a full time student, a D1 athlete, and still having to juggle homework and studying with my everyday schedule isn’t easy. Attending MSMU allowed me to become more independent and has taught me how to prioritize my workload with the tight schedule I already have.
Q: What do you bring to the team?
A: I feel like I bring great energy to the team with all my positive and bubbly energy to all the negative situations. The team thinks that I’m the biggest goofball out there, and I honestly think so. I was chosen to be the representative for the Women’s Rugby Team at all the SAC meetings (NCAA Division 1 Student Athlete Advisory Committee).
Q: What kinds of challenges have you faced since heading out there? How have you coped with those challenges?
A: A big challenge I had to face was being so far away form home. Luckily we have FaceTime and WhatsApp to stay connect with our families. Also, lucky for me, I have people from Guam like Jalana, Hanna, and Lavonna that made the Mount easier to adjust too. With them, I felt like I had a little piece of home with me.
A: Another challenge I faced was not being able to eat rice everyday. As an islander, we love our rice, and its so hard to find rice out there. #theStruggleisReal
Q: How did you do this year?
A: Individually, coming in as a freshmen I did fulfill my goal in making the starting roster as the lead scrum-half, and surprisingly playing every single game. But, I still feel like I have a lot of room for more improvement. My passes and tackling this year weren’t as strong as I needed it to be, but with the training and lifting we’ve been doing, I feel like this upcoming year will be better.
Q: How’s it been playing with the other three athletes from Guam?
A: I feel like we all really help each other. And when I play with the three of them, I feel the connection. I don’t know how to explain it but I know exactly what they’re going to do when they haven’t even done it yet. We just have that connection and flow when we play together
Q: Describe a typical day for you.
A: In a typical day, I wake up 4 a.m. for morning skills that start exactly at 5 a.m. After skills, we go straight into lifts around 7 a.m., where our trainer Mitch Clemons (Women’s Rugby athletic trainer) gives us our daily lifting workouts. Around 8:30, I get ready for classes in the dorms. Sometimes, I grab breakfast if I have time, then head straight to my first class at 9 a.m. I usually have three classes a day, then around 4 p.m. we have field practice where we work on tackling, plays and more. Then, as a team we all eat dinner, then back to the dorms to do homework and we try our best to sleep early because we have to wake up at 4 a.m. all over again
Q: How did your team do this year?
A: As a team we started out strong. Overall, we had a pretty successful season making it all the way to semifinals. The sisterhood we made on and off the field showed how strong we are as a team.