NCAA, Other, Sports

Rugby standout Wakimoto invited to national camp

It’s 5:35 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, and roughly 35 Boston University women rugby players are scattered around one half of Nickerson Field.

If, for some foolish reason, any BU students were awake on this particular morning, and didn’t remember seeing the club team practicing as they walked through West Campus, there’s a reasonable explanation for that: the sun wouldn’t rise for more than an hour.

You certainly would’ve heard the girls, though.

“Come on, hit her harder,” some shrieked in an ear-splitting tone. “Get your shoulder low and drive through her.”

There were also many loud grunts as the girls, paired off in twos, exchanged turns lining each other up, and, like bulls chasing a matador’s cape, charged their partners and drove them, shoulder first, onto the Nick’s frigid, dew-soaked turf.

Some of the tackles ended in groans of pain. Most, oddly enough, ended in giggles.

A few of the twosomes –– mostly those with newer players –– are courteous enough to ease up just before contact.

At the center of the group, Miranda Wakimoto and Julie Athanasiadis lack their teammates’ civility. Wakimoto is far and away the team’s best player. Recently, the junior was invited to try out for the United States Under-20 team, and if she makes it, she’ll compete against the best U-20 players from across the globe this summer.

Athanasiadis respects Wakimoto –– “The first thing I noticed, she’s just so quick, so speedy, so agile,” Athanasiadis said –– but it’s immediately evident that she doesn’t fear her. The pair goes blow for blow, pummeling each other onto the damp, frosty turf, only to get up and do it again.

Wakimoto and Athanasiadis, like the overwhelming majority of their teammates, knew little to nothing about the sport before coming to BU.

“I had barely even heard of it, really,” Athansiadis said. “I knew it was a rough sport, kind of brutey.”

It’s been under Wakimoto’s and Athansiadis’ leadership that the program has become a nationally recognized force.

During Wakimoto’s first two years on campus, the team won just five games combined. But last fall, under the direction of first-year coach Devin DiGiovanni, the squad went undefeated in its New England Rugby Football Union regular season, and rolled into the New England quarterfinals. The club enters its spring season rated No. 18 in the country in’s Division II rankings.

DiGiovanni, who, despite looking up at most of her players, draws and holds their attention with an exuberant persona, raved about Wakimoto’s abilities.

“She knows as much about the rules as I do,” the part-time rugby official said. “She’s probably the best ball runner I’ve ever seen. She’s not just speedy and a good accelerator. She sees gaps, has shifty moves.”

Athansiadis spoke to how quickly Wakimoto picked up the sport.

“Right off the bat, nobody knows the sport,” Athansiadis, a senior captain, said. “As a freshman, she had a really big presence. She started as a wing on the outside, and the most important thing there is athleticism. She just dominated.

“After that, she just became addicted.”

The story is a familiar one around the club, though Wakimoto takes it to an extreme. Rugby, just by its nature, requires a certain personality.

Every year, plenty of girls sign up for the squad, mostly at the team’s Splash table.

Not as many show up for the first tryout, especially if it happens to be an early morning workout. More tend to drop out as the season goes on, growing tired of being repeatedly drilled in a fashion that could make Jack Lambert’s toothless jaw drop.

Those who stick around become obsessed. The willingness to suffer Urlachian blows on dark, wintry March mornings speaks for itself, as does the rigorous weekend traveling. Wakimoto, for her part, has spent countless hours cooped up in her room, watching video after video in an effort to soak in the sport best she can.

“You learn by playing it and watching it,” said Wakimoto, who now serves as the team’s flyhalf, a position comparable to football’s quarterback. “There’s no rugby on TV in the U.S. You play it and love it then hop on YouTube at night and watch videos. It’s a really separate culture.”

The end result was a recent trip to Florida to try out for the U.S. U-20 national team. Despite some trepidation –– “I was afraid out of my mind that I’d be coming back in 100 pieces in a coffin” –– Wakimoto was encouraged by the experience, and will hear back from the team in May.

If she makes it, she’ll compete in the Nations Cup in Los Angeles in July against Canada, South Africa and England.

“Representing the U.S. would be amazing,” she said. “Just putting on that practice jersey, that experience was very cool.”

“Miranda’s been awesome in our league, but it’s hard to get recognized on a national level,” Athansiadis said. “She’s at that caliber, but it’s still a pleasant surprise to get recognized. We’ve been a club 11 years. No one’s ever thought about that. We’ve never had that before, one of our own going down there.”

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