There is one program representing the University of New Mexico that has found its way to some Sweet 16 success.
Meet the UNM women’s rugby team.
On Saturday, the team will tussle with the University of Central Florida at 12:30 p.m. in the round-of-16 in the women’s USA Rugby Division-I College Playoffs in Atlanta.
Coach Shannon Robinson aided in the creation of the program in 2000 and has been the front man for the program for the last 14 years. He attributes the success of women’s rugby at UNM to its growing popularity at the high school level in New Mexico.
“We’re so far beyond anyone’s expectations and the real reason is because of the high school sports programs in the state of New Mexico,” he said. “It’s just phenomenal to see. There are a few more high school teams now at St. Pius, Eldorado and Los Alamos that are good operating programs.”
The New Mexico Activities Association doesn’t sanction rugby either.
The expectations have been met, not only on the rugby pitch, but building up the UNM program.
The Lobos are members of the 3-year old Pacific Mountain Rugby Conference (PMRC). Because the team is a club sport, it’s not sanctioned by the NCAA and does not receive funding from UNM athletics.
However, the club team has to meet certain team guidelines that are similar to NCAA-regulated sports in which UNM participates. Just like NCAA student-athletes, UNM women’s rugby players must be full-time students, which means a course load equivalent to 12 credit hours or four classes. They also must average a GPA higher than a 2.0.
Robinson said the team sets up a table at UNM freshman orientation every year to recruit new players.
To support themselves and to be able to cover traveling costs to take part in away games, the team has put on several fundraisers. The team also receives funding and traveling aide from Star Limousine, which arranges for the team’s transport to many of its road games to Utah, Colorado and other points in the Southwest.
“If we didn’t have that kind of support, they wouldn’t be traveling,” Robinson said. “(Star Limousine) kicked in half the airline fair and it made the trip (to Atlanta tomorrow) possible. The girls also did bake and garage sales, created a PayPal account and people all over the country donated to the team’s account.”
The Lobos were 7-0 and finished ranked No. 1 in the East Division of the PMRC during the 2013-14 season. It’s their fourth appearance in the Sweet 16. They advanced to the Final Four in 2007.
Over the past three years the team’s success can be largely contributed to Jen Foster. She plays scrum-half, which is essentially the quarterback on a rugby team.
Foster, who is 5-feet tall, is a junior at UNM.
“This is my eighth year and it can be pretty scary for me being one of the smaller girls out on the field,” Foster said. “Playing rugby over the years, I’ve lacerated my kidney and broke the ring finger on my left hand. I have a massive scar there now.”
Foster said she enjoys playing for the UNM rugby team, and it’s a different experience being a member of a club team.
“We have to work for what we want and going places because it’s not just handed to you,” she said. “We have to work for everything we do, and all the other athletes take it for granted and they don’t have to do anything for it.”
Foster said she doesn’t know what kind of team Central Florida, located in Orlando, will field.
“We haven’t played a lot of East Coast teams during my time at UNM,” she said. “We’ve played a lot of West Coast teams like BYU and Colorado State, so we always play the same teams and we know what to expect.”
If UNM defeats UCF, it will play in Palo Alto, Calif., and face Penn State or Army on May 10.