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Road to Rugby Success

For Becky Carlson, the unlikely journey of a career in rugby began here at EIU
Becky Carlson (left) and Michelle Reed (right) pose for a pregame photo with Frank Graziano, the EIU women's rugby coach, before their Quinnipiac squad took on the Panthers Aug. 31 at Lakeside Field. Donna Doherty photo.

On Aug. 31, Eastern’s women’s rugby team hosted Quinnipiac University in a battle between two of just seven NCAA varsity programs. In that matchup, two of this country’s biggest advocates for the game’s advancement found themselves coaching against one another -- not many years after one of them got her start in the sport by playing for the other.

Just on its own merits, that’s a compelling tale, right? Yet, if that’s all you know … you don’t know the half of it.

Becky Carlson is the Quinnipiac coach in question; the Bobcats’ coach since 2010, she’s an EIU rugby alumnus who was going head-to-head with the same man, Frank Graziano, who recruited her to his squad when she transferred as a tennis player from West Virginia University in 1999.

What takes Carlson’s story to another level, though, are her accomplishments since those playing days in Charleston. Over the course of the subsequent decade, she has not only built a program from the ground up at QU and turned it into one of the best teams in the country, but in between found the opportunity to work for USA Rugby and do tremendous work to increase the popularity of the sport nationwide.

The Cause

“I was very committed to the cause while I was (at EIU),” said Carlson. “I’ve had a lot of fortunate career opportunities that have allowed me to continue the cause.”

The “cause” to which Carlson refers, in a nutshell, is the effort to grow interest in women’s rugby across the country. Her opportunity to really pursue that cause in earnest came a few years after earning her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2003.

“USA Rugby put out for an emerging sports program manager when I was a grad student,” said Carlson, who briefly went to Ferrum College in Virginia to work on the lacrosse and soccer coaching staffs before returning to Eastern to serve as an assistant to Graziano while pursuing a master’s degree.

“Frank had actually found (the job listing) online, and all I ever said while I was at Eastern was ‘I know rugby jobs are so limited, but I care so much about this cause of expanding women’s rugby in the NCAA and at the high school level.’”

The problem for Carlson, though, was her lack of standing within the “rugby circle” that put her at something of a disadvantage when attempting to procure an interview with the sport’s national governing body. Graziano pushed her to try anyway, and she made the wise decision to take his advice. She got an interview, caught the eye of her future boss, director of membership Kristin Richeimer, and in 2006 she became USA Rugby’s emerging sports program manager.

“I headed up the initiative from a professional sports standpoint, which I think was a huge selling point,” said Carlson, who essentially spent her days pitching rugby to high school and college athletic directors. “We weren’t just saying here’s exactly what you can do for your rugby program at your school, it was more here’s what rugby can do for your school.”

Some great things happened while Carlson served in that role. In 2008, for instance, Sebastian River (Fla.) High School started the nation’s first varsity girls’ prep rugby program. She also had girls’ rugby as a finalist to become an official varsity sport in the state of Colorado and was primed to make her final presentation when things went sideways.

One Door Closes …

“Three or four days before that hearing, USA Rugby cut the emerging sports program,” remembers Carlson. “They made budget cuts, and five of us were let go on the same day.”

Given their close friendship, Richeimer requested to deliver the grim news to Carlson personally. Carlson knew what was coming, but that wasn’t what was on her mind.

“’Who’s going to present at the high school association meeting when I leave?’” Carlson recalls asking. “(Richeimer) said nobody would, and that was the biggest blow.”

For the next year, Carlson went to work for a small software company specializing in email marketing integration. As far as her professional life was concerned, she was totally out of rugby.

“Everyone should be fired once. Everyone,” said Carlson with a remarkably upbeat attitude toward the experience. “Budget cuts at USA Rugby were one of the best things that ever happened to me, just because I went through that whole process and came out the other side.”

The Other Side

Carlson’s return to rugby was actually a byproduct of one of her first days on the job with USA Rugby. Staying in a hotel in New Orleans in 2006, she’d been tasked to call Quinnipiac athletic director Jack McDonald, who’d shown interest in installing a women’s rugby program at his school, and introduce herself.

As it turns out, McDonald was in the same lobby of the same hotel; when they first spoke on the phone, they could both hear the same construction noise in the background. Before Carlson was even checked into her room, she had her first meeting with McDonald. Even though QU didn’t get a program installed while she was with USA Rugby, the chance meeting ended up paying off for Carlson in a different way than she could’ve ever imagined.

“One day at lunch, I happened to read a story online about Quinnipiac adding women’s rugby as a varsity sport,” remembers Carlson. “I thought: ‘Oh, they’re finally going to do it. My hard work wasn’t for nothing.’

“I had put together the plans for them to be able to (start a women’s rugby program); they said they were going to implement it, but we weren’t sure when.”

Almost unbelievably, Carlson’s phone rang just as these thoughts were running through her mind.

“It was Kristin,” remembers Carlson. “She said: ‘Jack McDonald at Quinnipiac is looking for you.’”

Long story short: McDonald wanted Carlson to coach his new program, giving her the opportunity to build it from the ground up just as her mentor, Graziano, had done in Charleston. That’s exactly what she has done, too, putting together a team that finished third in last year’s USA Rugby National Championships.

Also worth noting is Carlson’s choice of assistant coach, Michelle Reed, is another EIU alumnus and another former Graziano assistant; she was on staff during Carlson’s playing days.

“It’s pretty amazing we get to coach together,” said Carlson. “We’re built out of the same mold and were basically mentored by the same person. Every time I got a position somewhere, I told her I wanted to bring her in. She just kept saying the time wasn’t right.

“But when (the Quinnipiac job) opened up, I thought of one person. She’s from Chicago and gave up her job there to come out and be my assistant, and it’s pretty amazing.”

Back Where it All Began

Matt Eissenberg (QU Chronicle)

Carlson and Reed have coached against Graziano five times now, including several trips back to EIU.

“I think it’s an interesting dynamic for Frank to be coaching against two of his protégés,” said Carlson. “We talk about it quite a bit -- about where we are and what we’ve been able to achieve.”

In 2011, the Bobcats came up short in all three meetings with EIU. Last year, they came to Charleston and went home victorious. This year, they handed the Panthers their most one-sided loss ever.

No coach ever wants to lose, of course, but Carlson says the silver lining for Graziano is evident.

“When I played for Frank, the mission was to extend and expand NCAA women’s rugby,” said Carlson. "For him, I think it’s kind of a win-win. He has two of his former players and colleagues coaching a brand new team in the NCAA.

“Ever since I was there, Eastern blew teams out of the water. If the game is evolving and getting better, then they don’t do that. There’s more competition. This is what NCAA Division I competition is supposed to look like. It shows how far the sport has come.”

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