June 27, 2016

Mostly sunny

Rugby suits Medina grad just fine

Brian Dulik
The Gazette
At first glance, Leah Fadden appears to be your typical college student.
The Medina graduate is a junior at Penn State University, where she prides herself on academics and is majoring in forensic science.
Once she steps out of the classroom, though, there is nothing ordinary about her activities.
Fadden is a starting flanker on Penn State’s women’s rugby team — the most successful program in the United States — which recently won the Division I national college championship with a 46-7 victory over Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif. (The game will be re-broadcast tonight at 7 p.m. on ESPNU).
It was Fadden’s third consecutive trip to the Final Four, proving she has come a long way in a short time since taking up the highly athletic and aggressive game in 2005.
“I decided, with some of my friends, to give it a try in high school,” she recalled. “Initially, I had no idea about the sport, but I knew it was kind of like football and soccer.
“I was learning as I was playing, and I found out it really is a physically demanding sport that requires vigorous training and conditioning.”
Indeed, it is, which is why the driven Fadden took to it so quickly after wrapping up her softball career. She spent her junior season on Highland’s team, then joined coach Sarah Philipson on Medina’s inaugural squad in 2006.
Suffice to say, she was hooked, even if it wasn’t necessarily an easy sell to her some members of her family.
“When I first told my parents I wanted to play rugby, my dad was really excited while my mom was more worried,” Fadden said. “She would see my bruises and would always remind me to use my mouth guard.
“In rugby, you should know that most players only use mouth guards for protection and nothing else. This past fall, I had a compound dislocation in my finger, but it was nothing compared to other injuries I have seen.”
None of the bone-crunching action or injuries, however, have dissuaded her from playing the game. In fact, Fadden says she loves it more than ever and currently serves as the vice president of the Penn State Women’s Rugby Football Club.
The Lady Ruggers have won five national titles in 15 years under coach Peter Steinberg, including crowns in 2007 and 2009. They also reached the title game in 2008, but lost 15-10 on a last-minute try to host Stanford.
“The team was devastated,” said Fadden, who saw action in both the national final and semifinal. “Losing like that really pushed us this year to take back our national title.”
And that Penn State did. With Fadden starting at weak-side flanker, the Ruggers emerged from an early 7-7 tie and crushed the Cardinal in front of its always surly fans. That gave Fadden two gold medals and one silver at the USA Rugby-sponsored tournament with her senior year still ahead.
“It was the best game I’ve had and our team really physically dominated them,” she said. “We raised the level of women’s collegiate rugby.
“It was a great feeling to win back our title in Stanford’s stadium. This gold means the most to me and signifies the hard work and commitment my teammates, coaches and I put into our season since August.”
Though the NCAA sanctions women’s rugby, it does not yet hold a national tournament. It does, however, support USA Rugby in its quest to grow the game and recognizes it as “emerging’’ with 347 club teams — putting it on the path toward full NCAA championship status.
Penn State, along with many other top programs, considers it a “team sport,” which is one step below a varsity squad, but well above club level. The designation is largely irrelevant as the Lady Ruggers compete against the best teams in the United States and have a six-day-a-week workout schedule.
“Some people think rugby is just a social sport, but it’s much different at Penn State,” Fadden said. “The physicality and skill is a lot different compared to high school rugby. Even though I had two years of previous experience, I still had a lot to learn.”
Now, part of her responsibility is to pass on what she learned from her mentors to the underclassmen in the program.
The seniors-to-be have already set two lofty goals: claim another Mid-Atlantic Rugby Football Union league title, then become the first Penn State team to win back-to-back national championships.
“I’m already looking forward to next year,” Fadden said. “We will have a lot of seniors that will graduate, but our team is unique because we have a lot of depth and experienced players. The work starts now.”


Fast facts

Here are six important things to know about rugby, according to Leah Fadden.

* You are allowed to pass and kick the ball, but you can only pass backward.
* There are 15 positions on the field split into two groups: the forwards and the backs.
* The backs usually receive the ball and are typically the players that score tries.
* The forwards are responsible for the set pieces of the game, like scrums and lineouts.
* Unlike football, there are no stoppages when teams switch from offense to defense.
* Each game consists of two 40-minute halves with a 5-minute intermission.


Dulik may be reached at brisports@hotmail.com