Women’s Rugby: 2017 Season Preview

Women's Rugby season preview - Austin Hall talking to huddle

NORTHFIELD, Vt. – The Norwich University women's rugby team enters the 2017-18 season looking to assert itself back into the conversation as one of the top programs in the country.

The Cadets enter their third year playing an entirely varsity schedule this fall as part of the 17-member National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA). Last year, NU went 3-8, falling to Army West Point in the opening round of the NIRA playoffs.

"We're looking to be competitive this year in the conference and get our name back on the map after a couple down seasons from our recent standards," said NU head coach Austin Hall, who enters his 14th season at the helm of the program.  

The women's rugby program has won six national championships under Hall, with four comings in 7s play and two more in 15s action. The last titles came in 2013-14 when Norwich won the USA Rugby 7s National Championship, as well as swept the American Collegiate Rugby Association (ACRA) 7s and 15s titles en route to a perfect 40-0 season.

Although the Cadets no longer feature a roster loaded with national team pool players, Hall is excited about the depth and more evenly distributed talent level across the lineup.

"We've transitioned from being a star-studded national pool player team to what I like about this team is across the board we have a lot of players at the same level," Hall said. "We don't have many of the big names so to speak, but we do have Sheila Decker (Saranac Lake, N.Y.), who is an outstanding player, national team pool member and is well-known in the rugby community. She has a great work rate and will be our #8 this year."

Decker led the Cadets in scoring last season with seven tries, 21 conversions and six penalty kicks to account for 95 points.

Hall will also lean on seniors Victoria Olchowoj (Dobson, N.C.) and Denisse Zambon (Bronx, N.Y.), as well as sophomores Alissa Bissonnette (Derby, Vt.) and Caitlin Heale (Christchurch, New Zealand).      

"Vic is our captain and she fights for every inch which is something every team needs," Hall said. "She does the work in the trenches, leads by her actions and is always the first one to get dirty on the field. Alissa and Caitlin have really grown in the last year. They work really well together and are best friends on and off the field. They bring a lot of creativity."

Zambon led the team with eight tries last season from the wing position in 15s action. Junior wing Audrey Meakin (Marblehead, Mass.) also returns and should be a mainstay in the starting lineup.  

The Cadets will welcome 18 newcomers to the squad this season to go along with the 14 returners. Hall pointed to freshman center Skylar Tonumapai'a (Anaheim, Calif.) and senior prop Danielle Hamilton (Walpole, Mass.) as two newcomers who could have an immediate impact this season.

"I can see three or four freshmen jumping into the lineup right away," Hall said. "Skyler is an explosive back with power and speed that should turn some heads this year. Danielle Hamilton is a great athlete that is learning the game as a prop. She has great speed for the position and is strong."

Norwich will play another challenging schedule this fall with a mix of Tier I and Tier II NIRA teams. The Cadets open the regular season on Saturday, Sept. 2, hosting the University of New England at 11 a.m. on the NU Dog River Rugby Pitch. The Nor'Easters are coached by former NU women's rugby standout Ashley Potvin-Fulford '11.

NU will also travel to defending NIRA champion Quinnipiac, as well as host Brown University, Army West Point, West Chester and Notre Dame College.     

"We have a good balance of teams on the schedule this year playing mostly Tier I schools, with a few Tier II mixed in as well," Hall said. "Every year it gets more and more competitive. We're really looking forward to hosting Brown on alumni weekend and I think this team has the ability to surprise some people this year."