September 7, 2022

Making History with Debut as a Varsity Program, PU Women’s Rugby Battles Hard in Loss to Sacred Heart

FIRST TRY: Princeton University women’s rugby player Erica De San Jorge bursts past Sacred Heart players last Saturday on the way to the first try as Princeton made its debut as a varsity program. The Tigers, who started as a club program in 1979 and were granted varsity status in 2021, fell 53-21 to the Pioneers. Princeton will host Army on September 10 in its home opener. (Photo by Sacred Heart, provided courtesy of Josie Ziluca)

By Bill Alden

Josie Ziluca was behind the wheel in May 2021 when she learned the good news that the Princeton University women’s rugby team had been granted varsity status.

“It was amazing,” said Princeton head coach Ziluca, who came to the school in 2019 to guide the Tiger club program. “At that point I was driving cross country back to Princeton to attend graduation for our seniors who had a bizarre COVID year.”

That decision culminated a lengthy process as the club was founded in 1979 and enjoyed a lot of success. The Tigers won 57 straight matches in 1995-96 and two national championships and the seed was planted for an eventual move to varsity status.

There was discussion in 2012 to make the move but the players were content remaining as a club at that point. In 2017, the students made a proposal to go varsity which was ultimately approved four years later.

Last fall, Ziluca guided the Tigers through their last club season they prepared to make the jump to varsity competition. Princeton went undefeated in the fall rugby union (15 players a side) action and then placed third in national club 7s tournament this past spring.

This August, the players arrived at campus to start preseason practices for their varsity debut.

“It was crazy; it was a lot of hard work, it was a lot of fun,” said Ziluca, who spent the summer of 2021 leading the fitness programming for elite senior and U-18 women at the American Rugby Pro Training Center in Arkansas. “The students came back on August 16 and then we started training on August 18. It was filled with multiple two-a-days. I was putting them through some programming I do with the national players. For some of these students, it was something they had never experienced. They came out on the other side after every training session saying wow.”

Last Saturday, the players experienced a wow moment when Princeton made its varsity debut as it played at Sacred Heart, falling 53-21.

Appropriately, the squad left with some fanfare as it headed for the trip to Sacred Heart.

“On Friday when we loaded the bus, Princeton Athletics had an awesome departing party for us,” said Ziluca. “They normally only do that for championship games. They understood the importance of this so I think the team felt that spirit coming up.”

Spirits were high on Saturday morning as the players got ready to head to the pitch.

“Everyone was up early, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and got their hair done,” said Ziluca. “With them being up early and ready to go, there was so much energy that they didn’t know what do with.”

Struggling to channel all of that energy, Princeton had a tough first half, trailing 38-7 by intermission.

“I would say for the first 20-25 minutes, it was a little frenzy of emotion and a little bit of disconnection,” said Ziluca. “The other point is because of our lack of numbers and having a lot of walk-ons, we are not getting the full picture with our training. So that was their first time of seeing a full
defensive line and things like that. I was not surprised.”

A highlight of the first half came 31 minutes into the contest when Erica De San Jorge scored the first try (grounding the ball in the opposition’s in-goal area similar to a touchdown in football) in varsity competition for the Tigers.

“Erica is a sophomore and is also our diversity, equity, and inclusion officer on the team,” said Ziluca. “She has been playing rugby for less than a year and for me it is very symbolic. All teams strive themselves in their inclusivity. In rugby, as we all know, it doesn’t matter your shape or size, there is a place and purpose for you. It is a really healthy atmosphere. For her to be the one to do that is very symbolic about where we are headed.”

At halftime, Ziluca urged her players to play with a greater purpose in the second half.

“It was funneling the energy in a different way,” said Ziluca. “You step back a second and look at these student athletes. A lot of them have never played team sports, let alone a contact sport. We had to funnel that energy, I think they were nervous about plays and the space between and all of the this stuff instead of getting a little angry and throwing a tackle and working together. They concentrated their energy into a physical form.”

The Tigers responded, getting outscored only 15-14 in the second half.

“It was certainly our forwards, coming out of the scrum,” said Ziluca, who got tries from Priya Naphade and Amelia Clarke in the second half with Alayshja Bable kicking both conversions. “They were doing the brunt of the work, that was exciting.”

Another exciting moment for the Tigers will come when they host Army on September 10 in their home opener on the West Windsor Rugby Field on Washington Road.

“No doubt it is going to be an exciting show,” said Ziluca, noting that there is no parking at the field and that fans can park at the Princeton Boathouse or take a shuttle from the Wawa on Alexander Road. “We have a lot of support from athletics, alumni, and parents to make the fan experience really great.”

The Tigers will face a great challenge in taking on the Black Knights.

“Army came in second in the nation last year,” said Ziluca. “I know a lot of their players and a lot of the players on all of these varsity programs. I know what they are working with.”

Ziluca is hoping that her squad can build on its good work in the second half against Sacred Heart.

“At the end of the day, it is the start of the season,” said Ziluca. “Our team morale is really high. With that score differential in the second half the other day, I think our team knows that anything is possible, so let’s not count ourselves out.”

No matter what happens on Saturday, the fledgling program is making its presence felt on campus.

“I can see what the team is paving — we are playing the long game,” said Ziluca. “I can see it happening, even with the game on Saturday. Princeton Athletics is blowing it up, we are having so much interest from current Princeton students. We are a walk-on team, we only have a little bit of support. Princeton students always amaze me. They look at joining this sport as learning a new skill.”

With Ziluca driving the program, the Tigers are clearly heading in the right direction.