Humble, strong beginnings for this legacy program
By Corey LeBlanc
One of the top varsity programs in U SPORTS got its start in a Pictou County horse barn.
"We were eating straw and loving it," Michele Chiasson-Suart, one of the founding members of the StFX women's rugby team, remembers with a laugh of that inaugural game in 1984.
Since that humble beginning more than 35 years ago, the White and Blue have climbed the mountain and reached the summit – on several occasions – garnering an incomparable resume; one that boasts six U SPORTS national championship gold medals, along with three silvers and one bronze; not to mention an unmatched 21 Atlantic University Sport (AUS) conference crowns.
That first women's rugby competition came a couple months into Chiasson-Suart's third-year of university. She recalls learning that several Maritime universities had formed – or were forming – women's club rugby teams.
"StFX had a well-established men's team, but we didn't yet have a women's team. It just wasn't common for women to play rugby. We really wanted to fill that gap," she offered.
Chiasson-Suart took her idea to the now-semi-retired StFX philosophy professor Ed Carty, who was head coach of the X-Men rugby program.
"Ed didn't hesitate and said yes right away – we will be forever grateful," she says of the instant support the StFX Sports Hall of Fame member provided.
He not only offered his expertise, but also that of his players; something much needed, considering the X-Women were starting from scratch; most of the prospective players had little or no background in the sport. They had to learn to tackle and pass the ball for the first time and learn the rules as they played.
"We started drumming up interest," Chiasson-Suart says, noting that – in an era without Facebook and other social media – posters tacked up on campus helped get the word out.
There was a strong turnout for an information session and the rest – as they say – is herstory.
By the fall of 1984, the X-Women – donning the sweaty uniforms of their male counterparts after the men's games – took to the pitch for their first 15-player aside match. Leading up to and on that historic day, Chiasson-Suart remembers there was plenty of skepticism. The naysayers, which even included friends and classmates, thought the women's efforts were a "big joke."
Recalling there was a strong turnout on that day – Chiasson-Suart says any signs of doubt – there was some early jeering – were wiped away, once fans saw their athletic talent on display.
"Next thing you know – the fans were moving up and down the field cheering us on," she adds.
Although they were a new program, the X-Women were highly-competitive, a theme that continued in the club league for fifteen years before rugby moved to the varsity level in the AUS.
"In those first few years, we won almost every single game we played", says Veronica Visentin, one of the strong players from that first team.
When Mike Cavanagh arrived at StFX as head coach in 1998, he points out that the X-Women were "already a very good team" that was well coached.
"They had already won several Atlantic Championships and had established a great culture," he says. Cavanagh stresses the key role the founding student-athletes have had on the X-Women's championship success.
"We wouldn't be where we are today without them," he offers.
In a huddle before every game, the players from the past 10-years decree "Top Left," a reference to playing with full hearts and in honour of the players "who came before them, and those who come after them".
Chiasson-Suart notes she and her former teammates are touched at the thought of as having "even a sliver of a connection" to the development of the championship program.
"We are really proud of their success," says Suzanne Anderson, the captain of one of the mid-80s teams. "It's like being a proud parent watching their kids flourish. It's amazing to see how much the program has grown," exclaims Anderson.
Anderson remembers when her team won their first Maritime championship in 1986 against Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. She had to call her mother on a payphone to tell her the news. Then, Suzanne's mom had to call in the win to CJFX radio. Now, Suzanne tunes in every year to watch the X-Women play in the national championship games online.
The X-Women rugby program is truly a family, one that has also started to welcome its second generation of student-athletes. Chiasson-Suart's daughter, Maddie, is a graduating student-athlete with the team.
To keep the X-Women rugby program going from strength to strength, Chiasson-Suart, Anderson, and Visentin - along with a collection of alumni and former players from across the decades – Maureen O'Brien, Mary-Eileen O'Brien, Alexis MacDonald, Eryn Hessian, Chelsey Penrice, Mary Giles and Joanna Alphonso - have recently come together to start a fundraising campaign to support X-Women Rugby, the first of its kind for women's athletics at StFX.
"It has been an incredible road," Chiasson-Suart says, "and we want to ensure that the program continues to help grow outstanding young women, and garners more incredible success for decades ahead."
For more information on the X-Women Rugby campaign to celebrate 35 years of excellence, visit www.goxgo.ca/sports/wrugby/campaign.