Photo caption: Abbey Jacobs, in blue, scores a "try" in a Blugold club rugby game. Similar to a touchdown in American football, a try is scored by advancing the ball across an end zone line. (Submitted photo)
Club sports at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire have long been an avenue for serious athletes to find both community and top-notch competition outside the demands of NCAA Division III play, and now for one women’s rugby team member, it’s also been an avenue to international success on Team USA rugby.
Senior physical education major Abbey Jacobs, a Blugold club player since 2020, was selected to play on the U23 Team USA women’s team in July in Ottawa, Ontario. The Garnett and Gold Classic is a tournament between the top USA club teams and the two top-ranked collegiate teams in Canada, the Ottawa Gee-Gees and the Queen’s Gaels varsity teams.
“Through my start on our Blugold team, I’ve worked my way up through the levels of the Wisconsin and Midwest clubs and in May was scouted to play for Team USA in the under 23 age group,” the LaFarge native says.
“This was the first year that the league has held a USA tournament since COVID, so it was cool to be part of that first return and see the league get rolling again. It’s really exciting for women’s rugby as a whole.”
Founded in 1975, USA Rugby is the national governing body for the sport of rugby in America, and a full sport member of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) and the World Rugby Union. USA Rugby oversees four national teams, multiple junior national teams and an emerging Olympic development pathway for elite athletes.
Blugold women’s club rugby coach Derek Wagner has seen Jacobs go from a brand-new player to the game her freshman year, a season shut down due to COVID-19, to elite status in her first true season of regulation play.
“Abbey was a three-sport high school athlete who had never played rugby, but even through COVID protocols she dedicated herself to practicing and learning as much as possible,” Wagner says. “She played her first game ever in the spring of 2021 and was immediately setting herself apart as a top player.”
Wagner says that as the 2021 team finished up the season at eighth in the nation, Jacobs had become a leader who brought energy to the team, while garnering attention of Wisconsin and Midwest scouts, eventually earning the invite to Team USA.
“I was so nervous,” Jacobs says. “Obviously, a USA team is pretty big and scary, but going into it I just wanted to be ready to learn. Honestly, my performance was important, but I know I was so lucky to have the chance to learn from these top national coaches.”
The team assembled for the first time at the Ottawa tournament, which started with a four-day camp. Jacobs played a position known as a “lock,” a part of the eight core players charged with protecting and advancing the ball down the field. Wagner was able to travel to the tournament to support his player, who he says held her own in the talented lineup of the “big bodies” as she calls them.
“Abbey was selected to start both games and played about 60 minutes total against the top two teams in Canada,” he says. “They lost both games, but the experience was so great for all the players.”
For Jacobs, the Team USA experience not only heightened her love of rugby, but it greatly elevated her respect for talented coaching staff, especially Wagner, who has been a volunteer coach at UW-Eau Claire for nine years.
“Being able to witness different coaching styles from all these different level coaches is just awesome,” Jacobs says, speaking to her own hopes to coach in the future. “I can think about how to bring all that to teaching and coaching myself. It’s so exciting.”
“I watched how hard all those national coaches work, and knowing they are being paid for it makes what Coach Derek does for us even more incredible — he’s just doing it for us,” Jacobs says with appreciation.
Coming into the fall season for Blugold rugby, Jacobs is looking forward both to coming back to her home team and to welcoming some new players.
“So, when we get all these new girls, we feel like we get to build our culture again,” she says. “We all just love it.”
Volunteer coaches building club cultures of success
Jacobs’ story of national success in rugby is just one of many recent Blugold club sport success stories that really drive home the unique opportunities offered through collegiate club sports.
“The culture and family of our rugby club are so great,” Jacobs says. “Everyone works so hard at all our practices — you can see everyone just wanting to be there. Our coach does a really good job of balancing fun and learning. That’s the point. Nobody is getting anything for being there other than the team community and a good workout — it’s just the love for the game.”
The culture of “fun and learning” in Blugold club sports is widespread, according to Garrett Larson, sports facility operations manager in Recreation and Sport Operations.
“While not every competitive athlete is able or willing to commit to varsity sports, we recognize the value and enriching experiences our students find through club-level competition,” Larson says. “These are fierce competitors with high levels of skill, and the clubs really help UW-Eau Claire offer the best of both worlds for many students.”
Larson cites some of the recent achievements in Blugold club sports that, like Jacobs’ Team USA participation, point to a great balance of fun and sport for hundreds of athletes:
- Men’s and women’s volleyball: 2022 National Collegiate Volleyball Federation Division III national champions.
- Men’s lacrosse: Great Lakes Lacrosse League regional champions.
- Women’s rugby: Ranked second in conference and eighth in nation for 15s in fall 2021.
- Dance team: Sixth place in Division III at Universal Dance Association nationals.
Blugold women's rugby will host two home games in the fall season, Oct. 1 and Oct. 16, at Bollinger Fields. See the UW-Eau Claire Club Sports Facebook page for times.