By Jenn Voigtschild ’93, WPAOG staff
Lieutenant Colonel Mike Mahan ’70 (Retired) entered the Eisenhower Hall Ballroom in the fall of 2002 and was shocked at the sight before him. The tables for formal dinners had been cleared to the side; there was no band playing for a hop…instead there were 40 cadet women reading over a rugby manual, then enacting the different plays detailed in the book. Mahan was hooked, and he volunteered on the spot to be their first coach until they could find a full-time one. It was an inauspicious beginning for what would become, 20 years later, the Academy’s winningest women’s team, with 12 assorted championship titles. No one except the players knew it then, but a team of champions and warriors had just been born.
Kafi Joseph ’03 was the driving force behind those first practices and requests for coaching and support from the Academy. In November 2002, she asked the Commandant, Brigadier General Leo Brooks ’79 (Retired), to come watch their first scrimmage on Daly Field. Wearing cold weather gear and borrowed jerseys, the “Founding Forty” women cadets battled it out against each other in calf-deep snow, earning Brooks’ approval to start a Women’s Army Rugby (WAR) competitive club team. Rarely does the chance to do something totally unique and new appear at the Academy, but Joseph consulted the Center for Enhanced Performance and took that exceptional opportunity to craft a team name, creed, and traditions in order to ensure that the team was cohesive and mission-focused from the very beginning, traits West Point teaches and tries to inculcate in future Army officers who will be leading teams after graduation. Joseph, the first team captain, stated, “We coined the phrase ‘Declare It!’ as our battle cry because each time you step on the pitch you are facing an opponent, you are battling for victory! We affectionately referred to members of the team as W.A.R.riors.”
With such a strong beginning, success came quickly and has not faltered in the last 20 years. Lieutenant Colonel Tia Terry ’04, the first regular season team captain, remembered, “What we lacked in skill, we made up for with our athleticism.” In their first game the team tied 5-5 against Columbia University. They defeated Rutgers University a month later for their first win, and by the end of that first season the team had won the MET-NY 15s Championship. Head coach Major Leland “Butch” Stedge ’72 (Retired), who took over running the team from Mahan, stated, “In our game against Navy, things were going well, it was a lot of running, tackling, and hitting people, and WAR was good at that! However, the other team started kicking the ball, and we knew we needed to learn some new skills.” Working hard and adhering to their creed, by the next season they defeated the Navy squad, ranked No. 6 in the nation. The next year, in just their third competitive season, the team won its second MET-NY 15 Championship and its first Northeastern Championship, qualifying for the round of 16. The 2006-07 team included four-year ruggers, and members started qualifying for the Under-19 Women’s National Team.
The club team was practicing in numerous locations, including Daly Field and the parade field at Camp Buckner. Finally, they found a home field, locker rooms, and a dedicated space when the Anderson Rugby Complex (funded by Lee Anderson, Class of 1961, and his wife, Penny) was completed in 2007 on what had been part of Target Hill Field. The first rugby game played on Warrior Field, the main turf field, was a Women’s Rugby Team victory against the U.S. Air Force Academy, the first in team history against that rival.
Thanks to the amenities of the Anderson Rugby Complex and WAR culture, the women’s club team perpetually attracted new cadets to the squad. It also continued to win numerous local and regional championships and a place in the national championships. Captain Triada Cross ’13 was a yearling on the 2011 National Championship Team and recalled, “It’s that bond that won us the championship. I watched my sisters play harder than I’d ever seen them play before. I watched them become beasts and throw themselves into scrums. I saw tackle after tackle go down, knowing that one of my teammates was going to be there to clear over the ball and protect her sister.” Army beat Penn State 33-29 to win their first national championship.
In 2014 both the Men’s and Women’s Rugby teams moved from being Directorate of Cadet Activities competitive club teams to being managed by the Army West Point Athletic Department (formerly ODIA). Since the move, the Women’s Rugby Team has been undefeated against both Navy and Air Force. In their first season as a varsity team in 2015, the 7s team (7 players per team on the field) defeated Norwich University, who entered the game on a 63-match unbeaten streak and as the three-time reigning national champions. WAR went 6-0 in American Collegiate Rugby Association’s 7s Championship, wresting the title away from Norwich. The team continued to dominate, going undefeated in both 15s and 7s in the 2020-21 season, outscoring their opponents 465-25 over both the fall and spring seasons.
Current head coach Bill LeClerc has an over 70-percent winning record since the team became a varsity sport in 2014 and is also an assistant coach to the United States Women’s National Team. Under his coaching, First Lieutenant Samantha Sullivan ’20 was selected as a three-time NIRA 15s All-American, the first-ever recipient of the Prusmack Award (given to the top 7s collegiate player by the U.S. Rugby Foundation), and the only rugby player (men’s or women’s) to be selected for the Army Athletic Association Award.
From November 4-6, 2022, alumni, current team members and coaches from the Women’s Rugby Team gathered to celebrate exactly 20 years of women’s rugby at West Point. The weekend included a rugby practice and game, a welcome reception and viewing of the new Women’s Army Rugby exhibit at the West Point Museum, and a banquet with the Honorable Sue Fulton ’80, keynote speaker for the event. Additionally, a jersey ceremony was held during which Joseph, Terry, and Sylvia Thomas McDonald ’11, first national championship team captain, presented jerseys from their teams to the current co-captains, Cadets Kaylee Cargile ’23 and Julia Riekena ’23.
Women’s Rugby at the Academy has not only contributed to the athletic laurels of the Black Knights but also to the skills learned on the pitch that have contributed to grad success in the Army. The team’s emphasis on building off these skills have influenced hundreds of women graduates who have gone on to lead in today’s Army as Rangers, Sappers, combat arms officers, commanders, the corporate and non-profit sectors, and as Olympians and elite-level athletes and coaches.
Read the complete Spring 2023 edition of West Point magazine here.