Student starts girls rugby team


By Henry DeWitt, Sports Editor

Since junior Ella Williams was young, rugby has been in her life.

Some of her earliest memories are watching her parents coach the KU women’s rugby team, being babysat by team members and running around at KU rugby practices. While her peers in elementary school were shooting basketballs and hitting baseballs, Williams was watching her dad play rugby.

She knew the sport she was most interested in was unusual to her classmates. But she liked that part of it.

“I’d come to school wearing a rugby shirt, and no one would know what it was,” Williams said. “I felt pretty cool.”

The summer before her sophomore year, Williams got an opportunity to travel to New Zealand to watch the KU rugby team with her family. This opportunity cemented passion for rugby. From then on, Williams was searching for a team.

Last semester, Williams’ dad sent her a text saying she could play on a team at Harmon High School in Kansas City. Williams jumped on the offer. She had never played organized rugby, but this was her opportunity to learn how. She was excited to go to her first-ever rugby practice. But when she got out of the car, she learned that it was not a practice, rather, a game.

With Williams’ first organized rugby experience being a game, she was forced to learn at a much faster pace than she anticipated. She finished the fall season playing with the Harmon team feeling unsatisfied. Only playing part of a season with the team left her wanting more.

She wanted to play rugby this spring, but this time she didn’t want to bring herself to Kansas City for every practice. Williams wanted to bring the rugby to herself. She decided, with the help of her parents, that she was going to start a girl’s rugby team in Lawrence.

“The biggest challenge will be recruiting athletes,” said Jason Williams, Ella Williams’ dad and a founder of the club. “Rugby is an obscure sport that is rarely televised in America. In other countries around the world, you grow up watching rugby on TV.  So, we have to educate people about the sport, and then try to convince them to try something new.”

With those challenges in mind, Ella Williams started to advertise the club. Hanging fliers. Talking to teachers. Telling everyone she could. At the first unofficial practice, nine people showed up.

“I have always done low-contact sports,” said junior Eva Ruiz, who attended the first practice. “I was like, ‘Oh, this will be interesting, kind of high-contact.’ ”

While interest in the club seemed to be growing, the attendance at practices started to go down. Parents not wanting their daughters to get hurt. Kids not wanting to get hit. And the fear of not knowing the rules drove people away.

“Anyone could play,” Williams said. “It was pretty easy to pick up. My first practice was just being in a game.”

The Lawrence rugby team was starting its first official practices before the coronavirus pandemic led to massive closures. The practices consisted of learning the game and getting everyone comfortable with the sport itself. But the main challenge still remained in recruiting.

“I would like to see Douglas County produce enough rugby players that we can have our own, independent team that is competitive with other KC area schools,” Jason William saids. “I would like to see us travel to tournaments and win some hardware.”

Ella Williams hoped the Lawrence rugby team would become a viable option for girls that might not want to play traditional American sports. She does not see the physical nature of the sport as a reason to not play. Rather, she sees the team aspect as a primary reason to join.

“It gives you a lot of friends. That’s your family,” Williams said. “If you play other sports but you’re not super good at them, this is a sport that will make you feel good the whole time.”

Bright-eyed — junior Ella Williams (left) takes a short break in between two labor-intensive rugby plays. Rugby practice took place twice weekly with different types of drills. Photo by Katherine Williams

In motion — Looking up, junior Ella Williams (top left) gets ready to catch as she plays rugby during a practice in February. The rugby team developed this school year thanks to Williams’ persistence.