Central’s women’s rugby team is off to a solid start for the 2014 season, thanks in large part to the leadership of senior Heather Johnson. Johnson has been a part of the team for four years.
The Wildcats defeated 5th ranked Quinnipac University (Connecticut) in comeback fashion on Saturday Oct. 25.
Originally from Dixmont, Maine, Johnson plays hooker on the women’s fifteens squad. Johnson originally attended Central with no intention of playing rugby.
“I started playing my freshman year in 2010,” Johnson said. “At the club fair, I saw the table and walked up and signed up.”
Johnson is a clinical physiology major. She moved to Ellensburg from Maine just after turning 18 years old. She had previously only heard about rugby, but had never played.
“It was just something different and I got in,” Johnson said.
Johnson has been a part of rugby at Central since it was a club sport. The women’s rugby program began as a club sport in 1990 and became a part of the varsity program in 2014. This is the first season the men’s and women’s programs are recognized as varsity sports.
“I was extremely excited. It’s a huge opportunity. It was a huge change,” Johnson said about the program becoming a varsity sport. “It is a varsity program now and we have a full-time coach and a full-time assistant coach and they are both USA players.”
Johnson said that she noticed a significant change to the team when it became a varsity sport. It was complicated for her to describe the change for the program because there was so much excitement and anticipation surrounding the change.
“The coaches and me, we have the passion, we have the players,” Johnson said.
Along with the change from club to varsity, the program also received a new coaching staff including Mel Denham, the new head coach and former USA Rugby player.
“She is amazing. She is phenomenal,” Johnson said about Denham.
Despite the recruitment program bringing in players from all over the nation, it doesn’t take long for bonds to be made.
“We have girls recruited from everywhere. We have girls from the East Coast. We have girls from California that come up because Mel recruited them to play here. So this is the first time this group of girls has played together,” Johnson said. “All these girls come together, and we are still learning how to work together, but we are progressing so well.”
This year’s team is heavy with underclassmen: 11 freshmen, six sophomores, six juniors and four seniors make up the roster.
“We have a lot of underclassmen who definitely make an impact,” Johnson said. “We are just going to keep getting better.”
As seniors in a collegiate sport, athletes often know in the back of their minds that it may be their last year playing at a competitive level. Careers often take importance over the sport they love to play, but the thought hasn’t appeared in Johnson’s mind.
“It hasn’t hit me yet. I have just been coming out as hard as I can to take as much advantage as I can,” Johnson said. “I don’t think of this as my last year. I think of this as a varsity program and having as much fun as I can.”
Johnson said that she is focused on her team and this season, and has considered playing rugby after she graduates.
“Depending on where I am, there is a bunch of women’s clubs I would look into,” Johnson said. “Some girls on this team could go up to be USA players.”
Having such a freshman-heavy roster forced the team to work out the kinks that come with new faces. Once the team came together, Johnson’s concerns were put to rest.
“We have only a handful of returners from the club. With all the girls coming over, we didn’t really know each other before, but some of us got hooked up through Mel,” Johnson said. “But we are a family. We have team dinners and we have game nights.”
Over Johnson’s four complete seasons of being a Wildcat rugby player, her favorite collegiate memory was the game this weekend against Quinnipiac. Central and Quinnipiac were tied 17-17 in the final minutes of the game, until Ashley Rolsma scored the game winning try in the 78th minute.
“The mindset is totally different this year,” Johnson said. “Totally different atmosphere. We have so much more intensity, so much more passion. Everybody wants to be here and make it to nationals.”
Johnson has had a large role in changing the mindset for the team this year. Teammate Jennifer Johnson (no relation) said Heather has taken on the leader position this season.
“Heather is always willing to step up and do anything she can to help the team, whether it be switching positions mid-game or volunteering to demonstrate drills at practice,” Jennifer Johnson said. “She always has a positive attitude that is contagious to the rest of the team.”
Heather Johnson had difficulty indicating the person who has been most influential in her rugby career, but recognized Jacob Bates and Alex Lee, former Wildcat men’s rugby players. Heather Johnson also gave credit to the men’s rugby program.
“We wouldn’t be here without Tony Pacheco and the men’s team,” Johnson said. “Because without them, doing as well as they have in the past, they wouldn’t have gone varsity, and then Title IX wouldn’t have brought us up with them. Now we are proving that we do deserve the title; we do deserve to make it to nationals.”
The Wildcats will head down to Oregon State University on Nov. 8, before returning for a home game against Washington State University on Nov. 15.