Oberlin Rhinos Hunt for Success

Julie Schreiber, Sports Editor

The Rhinos, Oberlin’s women and trans rugby team, returned from their first spring tournament on Saturday covered in mud and bruises but happy to have finally put their practices to good use in a proper scrum.

In their first of three tournaments in their spring season, the Rhinos faced tough competition in Tiffin University and Ohio Wesleyan University, coming away with losses across the board. However, sophomore Leah Cohen said that winning wasn’t the goal this weekend, it was for the team to have the chance to play together outside for the first time this semester and test their skills.

“We had a really great time,” Cohen said. “We played well as a team, and it felt like everyone really wanted to be on the field.”

This weekend’s tournament saw Rhinos with twisted ankles, broken fingers and various other ailments as they fought their way through the tournament. Being a rugby player is no easy task, but sophomore Tal Nettner-Sweet said that, despite the risks that come with a contact sport, the right training ensures that fun trumps injury on the pitch.

“With the right amount of hard work and technique, rugby can be a really enjoyable, rewarding and safe team experience,” Nettner-Sweet said.

The Rhinos have proved themselves to be not only a stout and solid team but also a welcoming and accepting community that has provided a valuable space for many Oberlin students. Nettner-Sweet said the team’s trans inclusivity has opened the door to a positive athletic environment that students elsewhere would be hard-pressed to find.

“Trans people can face difficulties feeling comfortable on gendered sports teams,” Nettner-Sweet said. “But because rugby is a club sport, we don’t have to follow the same gender rules that varsity sports may be restricted to.”

Cohen said that the team also serves as a flexible and accessible community for younger players who are still finding their footing in college.

“It was a really important space for me as a freshman,” Cohen said. “It’s a place where queer identities are really celebrated, and it’s tied into the history of the sport as well.”

Rugby is often associated with traditionally masculine characteristics, such as aggression and brawniness. In light of this, Nettner-Sweet says that being able to reclaim the sport, utilize it to explore gender norms and empower a sector of the women and trans community has been “a really positive experience.”

Though the Rhinos have recently racked up more losses than wins, the team sits on a long history of successes. The past 20 years of Oberlin College rugby have been filled with Rhino wins, Rhino sponsorships (most recently from Pabst Brewing Company) and even Rhino weddings.

Luckily for the team, the spring is technically offseason. As the months get warmer, the Rhinos play “sevens” on the field, essentially competing with a smaller team in the same field space, which means more running and lower-stakes contests. This lets them build on competitions to hone techniques and strategy in a more relaxed environment, as well as recruit new members and get them some playing time.

Cohen recalled first-year Michaela McCarley having her first run against Tiffin University, where she successfully got a taste of rugby competition in the more relaxed off-season environment.

McCarley’s try was also the only one the Rhinos completed in the entire tournament, going wide around Tiffin’s defense after catching a long pass from senior Jenny Hill.

The remainder of the team’s spring season includes the annual “Rhino Prom Game,” when rugby is played in formal wear and corsages, and an intense alumni match-up during Commencement week.

Graduating seniors Hill, Sadie Oliver-Grey, Nora Rice and Hannah Grandine will be sorely missed at the spring’s end, but Cohen has no doubt that the Rhinos will be able to sustain their team network through their strong sense of community.

Cohen said that the fluidity of the sport and the range of players’ experiences is constantly a big draw for new recruits.

“Rugby is the best sport because there’s so much room for innovation,” Cohen said. “There are so many tricks you can pull, so many plays you can come up with, so much room for creativity.”

Nettner-Sweet agreed. “The game brings feelings out of you,” they said. “You have to put your whole body and soul into it.”

The Rhinos will hold their home tournament for the spring season on Saturday, April 23.