Howard rugby, in just its second year, will compete for a national title PIC 1

COLLEGIATE RUGBY: Howard sophomore Alicia Bush runs through would-be tacklers with Te'Vonya Jeter in support. Jon Musselwhite/Howard Rugby

Last year, the Howard women's+ rugby team had such a depleted roster it sometimes competed with only 13 of the requisite 15 players late in the season. Few of its athletes had previous rugby experience, but the club program at the historically Black university in Washington harbored hopes of becoming a varsity team and ultimately a Division 1 power.

Now, only two years after its founding, the team will contend for a national championship. The squad is scheduled to play Claremont Colleges on Sunday in Houston for the College Rugby Association of American Division 2 title, about a week after raising more than $24,000 to fund its trip.

"I'm definitely excited. I never imagined that we would have come this far," said Alicia Bush, a sophomore on the team. "I have confidence in our team and I know that we play really well. If we play our best, I can see us winning."

Howard junior Takunda Rusike founded the team in 2021, and it began playing its first competitive games in the spring of 2022. Howard had roughly 20 players when it was at full strength, but final exams and physical exhaustion reduced its numbers down the stretch last year.

Rusike and Coach Kat Aversano entered the summer break concerned about retention and made recruiting their main focus entering the new school year. No longer bound to virtual classes and organizing via social media, the team took a more robust approach to building a foundation. It created a recruiting chair position, posted fliers across freshman dorms to attract younger talent and sold students on a tightknit organization after the pandemic left some craving community and physical activity.

By this past fall, the squad had more than doubled its head count to 45.

"I didn't even think we'd get the numbers to actually have enough to play for regionals," Bush said. "I didn't think we would be able to have the numbers to do it, much less win. And so it's just shocking."

In college rugby, varsity, quasi-varsity and club teams can compete against each other, with many women's programs operating outside the NCAA's purview. Teams play under multiple organizations that have their own divisions and conferences, with the College Rugby Association of America (CRAA) viewed as the most competitive.

Howard plays in the Capital Conference, one of the CRAA's nine Division 2 leagues, which also includes American, George Washington, Georgetown, Maryland and George Mason, among other D.C.-area schools. Rugby is contested in both the fall and the spring, but the Capital Conference offers a fall regular season with a season-ending playoff to determine who competes in spring regionals.

Two primary factors propelled Howard into Sunday's final: its quality of play and a fortuitous set of circumstances.

The team, which did not formally compete during the fall conference season, nonetheless played an undefeated fall exhibition schedule that included wins over conference opponents. It was also helped by the fact that other conference teams, many which have rosters that have not rebounded to pre-pandemic strength, could not play into the spring postseason without the bodies or budgets to compete.

Capital Conference withdrawals helped clear Howard's path, and the conference commissioner appointed the team to represent the league in last month's East Region playoff in Gastonia, N.C., where it defeated Charlotte in the semifinal and Appalachian State in the final. Claremont Colleges, the West Region winner and reigning Division 2 spring champion, awaits.

Howard reaching the national final as a second-year team is meaningful regardless of the circumstances, according to Alex Goff, founder of the Goff Rugby Report, which covers American high school and college rugby.

"For them to do that is remarkable," Goff said. "The big thing is, if you can get good athletes and you have the right coach, you can do it, especially in Division 2. In Division 1, now, it's virtually impossible. In Division 2 it's still possible. You can do it, but it's rare."

Where depth and wins have been easier to come by, reliable financial backing has not.

Howard has helped the team pay for items such as mouth guards, socks and warm-up uniforms. Players typically have shouldered other expenses, including travel, lodging and food. The team late last month feared it would be shorthanded for the final as players said they could not afford the trip to Texas.

On April 24 it launched a GoFundMe campaign, seeking $14,000 to cover those costs. The team met its goal in four days, powered in part by donations from Howard alumni, local rugby clubs and contributors from a new parents' group. It raised nearly $25,000 as of Friday and plans to use the surplus to better stabilize the team's financial future.

"These ladies are making history as the first HBCU to win a rugby regional and the first HBCU to go to the rugby national championships," Bush's mother, Cynthia, a 1991 Howard alumna who donated to the campaign, said in an email. "As a third generation Howard University alumnus, I'm proud to support my alma mater as its students continue to excel inside the classroom, in their communities and in their chosen athletic endeavors."

Rusike wants to win a championship, but her and Aversano's primary goal has been to continue pushing Howard's administration to anoint the team as a varsity sport, affording it certain benefits and assurances as it prepares to move up to CRAA Division 1 competition next year.

That dream seems unlikely, as Howard Director of Athletics Kery Davis weighs the challenges of adding another varsity program.

"We have been approached by organizations to start a men's and women's crew team, a women's gymnastics team, a men's volleyball team, a men's lacrosse team. There are all these different either organizations or alumni who reach out to us and say, 'We want to start a Division 1 varsity team,' (but) we are really almost at capacity for what we can cover at this point," Davis said, referencing the school's limited facilities and the department's financial and logistical considerations.

In the meantime, players are focused on establishing Howard rugby's legacy.

"I think this championship really just sets a tone of excellence," Rusike said. "This is the first two years, and now it's in our foundation that when we go out, we put our best foot forward and we try to win."