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Gioanna Cruz grew up in the South Bronx wishing to be the first woman in the National Football League. Instead, she found herself gaining momentum as a top player in the world of rugby. This weekend Cruz will be playing as a member of Lindenwood University’s team debut at the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship. So far, the Missouri-based school has been undefeated at the Championship and has earned the top spot in the women’s collegiate Pool B bracket.
Cruz was first introduced to rugby as a sophomore student at the Bronx Studio School for Writers and Artists. While unpacking some of her high school’s new athletic equipment, she came across a rugby ball and was unsure of what it was. Cruz’s school had been selected by Play Rugby USA, a non-profit organization, to have a rugby program. Since its inception in 2003, the program has taught rugby to over 6,400 children in New York City.
“I was so happy to find a sport that girls can definitely play,” said Cruz, recalling her first experiences with rugby. “It was very hectic because of the simple things, like we’re not allowed to pass the ball forward, we’re not allowed to be in front of the ball. Those are the things that we kept on hearing constantly during practices - the small things that now seem really simple and common sense sort of things, those were foreign languages to us.”
After being taught the rules of rugby in her sophomore year at Bronx Studio, Cruz went on to play 7s during the spring of her junior and senior years. She worked closely with her program’s coach, Billy Nicholas, who encouraged her to find opportunities in rugby outside of her high school’s new program. Cruz started playing club rugby during the summer, and eventually participated in prestigious national training camps and became a USA High School All-American in 2013. Ultimately, Cruz secured a scholarship with the American International College (AIC) in Springfield, MA.
Coach Nicholas kept in touch with Cruz, and when he decided to become the Head Women’s Rugby Coach at Lindenwood he let her know. Nicholas was thrilled with Lindenwood’s interest in building a fully-funded Division I women’s rugby program. After Nicholas joined Lindenwood last September, Cruz, in her sophomore year of college, wavered on whether or not she should transfer.
Nicholas explained, “When Gioanna learned that I would be starting up a new program she started exploring her academic and athletic options at Lindenwood. After coaching her over the summer at Old Blue Women’s Rugby Football Club, we kept in touch. She gave me a [call] and told me she was ready for a new start. She liked the opportunity Lindenwood provided with the combination of academics and athletics and facilities here and I was just happy to be in a position to assist Gioanna with her next endeavor.”
Cruz officially transferred to Lindenwood this winter and the school matched her financial aid package from AIC. “Teaching her how to pass a ball for the first time, then taking her to a Junior All-American camp and then having her get selected to play flanker and go on a tour this past summer- the progression has been monumental,” said Nicholas, “She’s just been a sponge- she’s just been absorbing everything. She’s really come a long way from where she first started. Being able to coach her again, get her to excel and re-motivate her rugby-wise is something that’s pretty exciting for me.”
Not only has the change been significant for Cruz and Nicholas, but Lindenwood in general. This is the first year the women’s program has competed in Division I, as well as the first time the team has had a dedicated fall 15s and spring 7s schedule. Overall, the effort has paid off, with the team placing seventh at the 2015 USA Rugby College 7s National Championship in Denver, CO last weekend.
During the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championships playoffs on Friday, May 29, the team defeated the University of Delaware 39-0 in their debut match, followed by another shutout victory against Boston University, 29-0. The only team that was able to get any points on the board against Lindenwood was AIC. The Massachusetts school lost the match with a final tally of 5-14.
Cruz reflected on the game afterwards, “It was really intense. All I knew was that my team was behind me. They were all really helping me to get to the game because of course it was kind of nerve racking for me because that was my team once and I’ve played with those girls. So it was really intense for me but we played liked a team and it was amazing to finish that game and win.”