Doyle and LFCC women’s rugby program have come a long way in one season

Posted: July 19, 2013

Despite picking up the game less than a year ago, LFCC’s Darla Doyle was selected as a USA Rugby Collegiate All-American candidate after serving as captain during the Lions’ inaugural season this past year. (Photo by Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star)
LFCC’s Darla Doyle was one of 120 female rugby players out of 10,000 nationwide selected to participate in the USA Rugby Collegiate All-American camps. (Photo by Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star)

MIDDLETOWN — A year ago Darla Doyle was just a typical student at Lord Fairfax Community College.

A 2010 graduate of James Wood High School, Doyle was heading into her third year at LFCC, intent on finishing up her general courses and prerequisites and hopefully beginning the nursing program the following year.

She’d gotten into some trouble with drugs as a teenager but had cleaned herself up, although she still got the occasional urges and had started smoking cigarettes again.

On the advice of her probation officer she’d gone out for the softball team and actually made the Colonels’ varsity squad as a junior, but she didn’t have a passion for the sport and only lasted a year.

A shy, quiet student who rarely spoke to anyone on campus, Doyle was content to show up, do her work and go home.

A year ago the LFCC women’s rugby team was nothing more than an idea.

The Lions’ men’s program, which had been founded just two years earlier, was growing and beginning to experience success and Aaron Painter, who oversees both the men’s and women’s programs, wanted to capitalize on the momentum.

Despite the general lack of exposure to the sport in the area, as well as the fact that LFCC would be the first registered community college women’s rugby team in the nation, Painter felt like it was the right time to expand the program.

The only question was, would anyone show up to play?

Meant for the game

The 5-foot-41/2, 150-pound Doyle doesn’t look the part of a rugby stud, but it didn’t take long for Painter and LFCC women’s coach Tim Hatcher to realize they had something special.

Having overheard a classmate talking about the newly formed team, Doyle, whose only experience with rugby had been seeing it played on a television a couple times, decided to check out what all the fuss was about.

“She was a natural,” Painter said. “It you look at her you wouldn’t realize it, but on the field she’s very aggressive and she’s a really good athlete. She’s a good listener and a quick learner, you usually only have to tell her something once and she’ll do it.

“She goes 100 percent all the time and never seems to get tired. She’s able to analyze the game quickly and call out where everyone should be. As a coach you look at her, watch her play and realize she was meant to play this game. She exemplifies what a rugby player is.”

Where softball and other sports failed to hold her interest, rugby quickly became Doyle’s passion.

Admittedly just looking for something to occupy her time in the beginning, the more she played and learned the game, the more she fell in love with it.

“It has the physical qualities where you can tackle and just sort of let out that aggression that builds up, but at the same time it’s very intricate,” said Doyle, who pointed to the endurance needed to play rugby for why she stopped smoking and has gotten in the best shape of her life. “You have to learn the techniques and the schemes and strategy. There’s a lot of thinking involved and I liked that.”

Inaugural season

The first season for the LFCC’s women’s rugby team was both a struggle and a success.

Unable to field a full team of 15, the Lions were forced to borrow players from opposing squads most matches, creating a mix-and-match style that made continuity difficult at times.

But their limited numbers did not stop them from playing roughly eight matches against the likes of JMU, Virginia Tech and UVa.

“Those are Division-1 schools, so for us to be able to play them was a big positive,” Painter said. “Even though we’re just a community college, they were willing to play us to help us develop.

“Because we were short on numbers we sort of merged with George Mason to play some teams and JMU even offered to have our girls come down and practice with them any time they wanted.”

The season was split in two, with the fall season running from August to Thanksgiving and the spring season from January until May.

The team practiced three times a week, with the occasional Saturday practice thrown in, and all of the drills and scrimmages helped turn the team of newcomers into experienced players, Doyle included.

With her ability to read the game on the fly and communicate with her teammates, as well as her sound technique and fearlessness when it came to tackling, Doyle was slotted into the number eight position and flourished.

“A big thing in rugby is the scrum, where your frontline players contest for the ball,” Doyle said. “So the eight man will be at the back of the pack and their job is to keep an eye on the ball and be scanning the field so that whichever team gets gains possession they’re the first one to it.

“They either want to be there to make the tackle if the other team gets it or to help out if their team gets it. They’re sort of the captain of the frontline players. They direct everyone.”

Surprise opportunity

With the season winding down, Painter, still impressed by how quickly Doyle had picked up the game, had an idea.

Having already become the first registered community college women’s rugby team in the country, why not try and get LFCC to have the first community college female USA Rugby Collegiate All-American candidate?

“Aaron approached me with the idea, just to see if I was interested, and I told him I’d love to try for it, even though I honestly didn’t think I was good enough,” Doyle said.

One online registration and a few stressful weeks of waiting later, Doyle found out she was wrong.

“I think a month or so had passed and I hadn’t heard anything, so I just figured that was that,” Doyle said. “But then a couple weeks after that I got an email saying I’d been invited to the east regional camp at JMU and I couldn’t believe it. I was jumping up and down and going crazy, I was so excited.”

One of only 120 players invited — 60 to the east regional camp and 60 to the west regional camp — from over 10,000 collegiate women rugby players, Doyle spent three days in late May learning and playing with the best rugby talent in the nation, and telling everyone exactly where Lord Fairfax Community College was located.

“Nobody had ever heard of it so I had to keep explaining where it was,” said Doyle, who went up against girls from Penn State, U.C. Berkeley and other D-1 universities. “It was definitely intimidating because a lot of the girls had been playing for years, and I hadn’t even been playing for a year, but once we got out and started playing I felt more at ease.”

Although she wouldn’t make the second cut — 20 were selected to move on from each camp — Doyle held her own over the three days and gained experience that she called “invaluable” in the process.

Growing the game

Back on campus, Doyle’s main focus is once again the same one shared by Painter, Hatcher and the rest of the LFCC rugby family — increasing numbers.

While most of the players should return from last year, the Lions hope to field a full team, complete with reserves, so they can compete as a unit instead of having to borrow players.

Painter said this coming season will feature the first year of conference play, with LFCC joining Longwood, VMI and the University of Richmond in the Capital Geographic Union, which covers Virginia, Maryland and D.C.

Between fliers, socials and word of mouth, the team is hoping to ramp up interest, and Doyle and teammates Courtney Scheepers and Tiffany Brown have even gone as far as to get certified as rugby coaches in order to assist Painter with a 10-week rugby clinic he is running in conjunction with Warren County Parks and Recreation in order to help the sport gain popularity in the area.

“The thing about women’s rugby is a lot of girls are hesitant to play. They think it’s going to be too rough,” Hatcher said. “But really the sport is about skill and finesse, and once you show them that they usually realize they like playing it.”

Painter calls Doyle the “poster child” for the women’s program, and hopes that her success over the past year will encourage others to give the sport a chance.

A year removed from not knowing a scrum from a drop kick, the girl who didn’t talk to anyone on campus now finds herself walking up to strangers and trying to get them interested in rugby.

“I’m definitely more social, more apt to talk to people than I was before,” said Doyle, who will start LFCC’s nursing program in the fall and plans on making the USA All-American cut next year. “I’m a lot more confident and just more proud of myself.

“It’s surreal to think about how much has happened in a year. I would never even have imagined going out for any sort of sport, much less one I’d never played before. So looking back I kind of have to remind myself that it really happened, because it’s crazy to think about it. I’m excited to see what comes next.”

— Contact Kevin Trudgeon at ktrudgeon@winchesterstar.comFollow on Twitter @WinStarSports1