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Princeton women’s rugby goes varsity, keeps walk-on spirit

<h6>Courtesy of Emily Della Pietra ’24</h6>
Courtesy of Emily Della Pietra ’24

In 2019, Josie Ziluca, then the part-time coach at Princeton’s women’s club rugby team, was driving across the country when she received a phone call from Princeton Athletics. On the side of the road, she was informed that her team was going varsity. 

“I had tears of joy,” Ziluca said. “I was so excited.”

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After years of student advocacy, the change to varsity status represents an opportunity for the team to compete at the highest level of collegiate rugby, an NCAA emerging sport. But this season is also a moment of transition as the players — most of whom hadn’t played rugby before they got to Princeton — become Division I athletes. Amid this adjustment, the players have sought to maintain the team’s walk-on culture.

A new member of the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA), the team competes against other varsity programs. After a nationwide search for a full-time head coach, Ziluca was selected to continue leading the team, with Anna Albrecht as assistant coach. And for the first time in the University’s history, three athletes were recruited to Princeton for rugby.

The team’s elevation to varsity status, according to Captain Leilani Bender ’24, is regularly described as “historic.” Bender serves alongside Captains Sophia Villacorta ’24 and Kathyrn-Alexa Kennedy ’23.

Still, players try to keep the shift to varsity in perspective — especially as the pressure of the word “historic” hangs over the team.

“That word inherently adds pressure,” Bender said. “Before our first game, I tried to remind everyone that even though they’re going to sing the national anthem, and they’re going to announce all of us, once the whistle blows, we’re just playing rugby.”

The path to varsity status

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A little-known fact, according to Ziluca, is that women’s club rugby was once the “winningest sport” at Princeton. Between 1995 and 1997, the team won back-to-back national championships and 57 consecutive matches. 

But a few years ago, players began to notice a trend that troubled them: teams they used to be competitive with — like Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth — were consistently defeating them in Ivy League tournaments. In the early 2010s, these club teams had been elevated to varsity status. 

This change was not limited to the Ivy League. Recognizing the growing popularity of women’s rugby, the NCAA established the NIRA in 2015 to increase varsity opportunities for female athletes. Since then, NIRA has expanded from eight founding teams to more than 20.

The idea for the club team to go varsity, according to former club president Kate Leung ’20, originated as a way to remain competitive within the changing landscape of collegiate rugby. 

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When Leung was a first-year in 2016, upperclassmen had already begun to sketch out a plan. Still, at the time, Leung said, “it seemed like a very far-off possibility, like a dream.”

But with time, Leung and her teammates began to embrace the idea. With the understanding that higher level competition would demand a greater commitment from each athlete, the team took a vote in 2018. It was unanimous: they would pursue varsity status.   

“We knew this probably wouldn’t happen while we were here,” Leung said. “But we thought, ‘if we don’t do it now, it won’t happen for the people that come after us.’”

In 2019, the team, with the support of its alumni board, submitted a 15-page proposal to Princeton Athletics. Its motivation to go varsity, the document stated, was to “return to the national championship stage.”

The proposal included statistics on player injuries, addressing the administration’s concerns about safety — it would only be improved, the players argued, with a full-time coach and better training support. The document also emphasized that a varsity rugby team would help close the gender gap in athletic participation. That year, the University had 32 percent more male athletes than female athletes. 

In the spring of 2021, two years after the team submitted its proposal — and several years after players first imagined going varsity — Princeton Athletics announced that women’s rugby would become a varsity team. 

Alayshja Bable ’26 
Courtesy of Emily Della Pietra ’24


‘We want to find our stride’ 

When Bender first entered the team’s locker room in August, she knew that this season would be different. 

“That was the first time we were in a space that was solely for varsity athletes,” she said. “It was our own space, too.”

In this moment of transition, even the smallest of changes — like access to a locker room — carries symbolic weight. 

“The other captains and I made cute themed signs for everyone's lockers,” Bender added. “Just to make it a little more fun and less official.”

But other changes more immediately affect the team’s level of play, allowing the program to build toward its goal of national championship. For one, the coaches now have the ability to recruit up to three players each year. 

Alayshja Bable ’26 is among the University’s three first-ever rugby recruits. Before coming to Princeton, the fullback from Philadelphia played for elite club teams like Atlantis Rugby and Midwest Thunderbirds.

She hadn’t even thought about playing for Princeton’s debut varsity program until she met Ziluca at an Atlantis tournament in the winter of her senior year.

“We played a game, and [Ziluca] was cheering me on from the sidelines,” Bable said. “Afterward, she told me, ‘I’m with Princeton, and I want you to check us out.’ I had no clue that would even be an option.”

But now, despite being new to the team, Bable and the other two recruits have taken on leadership roles to share their unique competitive background with walk-on teammates. 

“We’re allowed to lead things in practice,” Bable said. “You can say, ‘Oh, hey, maybe if you try doing this, you’ll have a better pass or be able to get a little bit stronger in a tackle.’ It [still] felt a little bit odd… we’re all new to the varsity experience.” 

Beyond this season’s logistics, Ziluca sees the team’s elevation to varsity status as a long-term endgame that demands strategic decision-making. 

“I’ve always put pressure on myself,” Ziluca said. “It’s not so much about game outcomes or scores — it’s more of, ‘Are we exploring all options to make sure that we’re moving forward the best way possible?’”

Ziluca started coaching at Princeton in 2019, bringing years of elite competitive experience to the program. She currently plays for the USA Touch Women’s Open Team, and she used to tour nationally with club teams — even winning a national championship in 2014. It was at Longwood University, where Ziluca entered as a two-sport varsity athlete, that she discovered club rugby. 

“I’m a fierce competitor,” Ziluca said, but “in our first [varsity] year, our goal is certainly not to win the conference. We want to find our stride.”

Tigers at home

On Sept. 10, Princeton women’s rugby played their first home varsity match against the U.S. Military Academy.

The match served as a reunion for dozens of former Princeton rugby players, who were honored during the team’s “Alumni Appreciation Day.” Several alumni in attendance had competed on Princeton teams that advanced to the national semifinals — there were six between 1997 and 2005.

Former captain Gretchen Jacobi ’06, who watched the debut, had also been to a rugby match at each of the 10 Princeton reunions she has attended.

“When I see the team now has trainers and a locker room, I think it’s going to make them that much more competitive,” Jacobi said, “but it will also build their community because really, rugby is about community.”

For Mags Dillon ’06, who worked on the varsity initiative, the game represented the culmination of the years-long effort to go varsity.

“It’s rare to see so much change happen really quickly,” Dillon said. “[Watching the match] was really moving.”

That day, Princeton lost its second game of the season 87–0. The first game, versus Sacred Heart, ended in a score of 51–21. And over the last two weekends, the team fell to Brown and Harvard

But for Jess Ward, senior associate director of Campus Recreation, the significance of this season isn’t related to the team’s win-loss record against opponents that have been varsity for years.   

“I went to their first game and watched them score their first try, and I cried because it didn't matter that they were losing,” Ward said. “They were still working super hard, and this is what they want.” 

Even with the team’s difficult schedule, Stuart Rickerson ’71 noted his optimism for the season ahead. Rickerson, the founding chair of the Princeton University Rugby Endowment Board, traveled from his home in California to watch the home opener versus Army. 

“It’s all new,” Rickerson said, sporting orange Converse and knee-high tiger-print socks. “But we’re going to surprise some people.”

The walk-on culture

Despite the team’s new ability to recruit athletes, most players joined the rugby team when they got to Princeton, without ever having played the sport before. 

In the spring of her first year at Princeton, Bender saw a club rugby flyer in the bathroom of Frist Campus Center. By the end of April, she was practicing with the team. 

“I really threw myself into it,” Bender said. “I never felt scared because I didn’t know something. The seniors made it really clear: as long as you’re trying, it’s all good.”  

For Bender, who played water polo in high school, rugby was a way to continue with high-level sports in college. Former team president Frances Walker ’22, who had played basketball, tennis, and volleyball before Princeton, saw rugby as a similar opportunity.

“Growing up, I always wanted to play football,” Walker said. “And my mom wouldn’t let me. There was the stigma that it was too dangerous for me, as a girl.”

Like football, rugby is a “collision sport.” Before new players can participate in contact practices, they repeat drills to learn how to tackle and fall safely.

Because rugby has so few barriers to entry, like previous experience or expensive equipment — mouthguards are the only protective equipment used — several players noted the team is distinctly inclusive.

“As a sport at Princeton, it was one of the most, if not the most, diverse with regard to ethnicity, income groups, and parents’ education status,” Walker said. “It also allows for a diversity of bodies and different types of skill sets.”

“We had people from tennis, who could move very liberally, and we had people from track and field who run very fast or jump really high,” Walker continued. “I was bigger, so I played prop, a forward position that requires a lot of strength.”

For captain Sophia Villacorta ’24, it was key to preserve this team atmosphere between the other changes brought on by the shift to varsity. 

“I wanted to make sure that the community and the environment didn’t change too drastically,” Villacorta said. 

Villacorta is a podcast contributor for the ‘Prince.’

President Zoë Koniaris ’25 agreed, noting that walk-ons’ lack of experience has not impeded their achievement.

“We’ve produced walk-ons who have come out to be great, competitive players after their time at Princeton,” Koniaris said. “And we hope to keep doing that.”

For example, in recent years, former captain Jessica Lu ’18 and Charlotte Wallace ’21 competed in the Women’s Premier League, the top-ranked American club women’s rugby league organized by USA Rugby. 

In the team’s competitive season, it plays 15 versus 15. Consequently, in three years, when the roster might contain 12 recruits, walk-ons will still make up a significant part of the program. 

“We are a walk-on team, and we always will be,” Ziluca said. “That’s just the spirit of rugby.”

Looking forward

The team is in its “test-drive” period for prospective walk-ons, inviting students to attend practices at West Windsor Field and learn the fundamentals of the sport.

“To me, rugby looks very intense,” prospective walk-on Katarina Ivkovic ’25 said. “[But] they’ve done their best to try and make it more bite-sized.” 

On a Tuesday afternoon in mid-September, Koniaris coached the group of new players, demonstrating passing technique and reminding them to call to each other by name throughout the drills.

“In rugby, we only pass to people who are calling for the ball, developing that skill of constantly communicating on the field,” Koniaris said.

For Koniaris, the transition to varsity has been an opportunity to refocus her energy as president away from logistical operations, which are now primarily handled by Princeton Athletics.

“Rather than being in the nitty-gritty, I get to be more of an ‘ideas’ person,” Koniaris said. “I see my job as checking in with each of the individual players on the team and advocating for them as best I can.”

The growth of rugby at Princeton is a part of a larger trend. Over the last two decades, the number of rugby participants in the U.S. — including youth players — more than tripled. In 2018, rugby was deemed the fastest-growing sport in the country. 

With universities increasingly adding varsity programs for women’s rugby, according to Ziluca, this is a particularly important moment for the women’s side of the sport. There finally exists a path for young girls to advance from club teams to collegiate play to professional competition. 

“In the future, when we think of rugby in the States, it’s going to be women’s rugby,” Ziluca said. 

While leading practice, Ziluca joined the returners in their scrimmage as a “double-agent” for both teams, weaving through players to score quickly.

After a few minutes, the coach paused the game to address the prospective walk-ons. They couldn’t join just yet, as they hadn’t been medically cleared for contact play. But they could stick around.

“Feel free to watch the craziness that’s about to ensue,” she called as she ran back toward the scrimmage.

Molly Taylor is a Features staff writer for The Daily Princetonian. She can be reached at mollypt@princeton.edu.

Gia Musselwhite is a Features staff writer for the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at gmusselwhite@princeton.edu or @gia.musselwhite on Instagram.

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