In The Locker Room With Shelby Raynor, Leah Cohen and Joey Velez


Ben Shepard

Leah Cohen, Shelby Raynor and Joey Velez

Randy Ollie, Sarena Malsin, Sports Editors

This week, the Review sat down with captains of the Rhinos — Oberlin’s women’s and trans’ rugby team — junior Shelby Raynor and sophomore Leah Cohen. The Review also spoke with captain of the Gruffs — the men’s rugby team — junior Joey Velez and senior player-coach Dustin French (not pictured). The four athletes discussed their rugby careers at Oberlin, their club sports experience and their most memorable team moments.

Did you play rugby for the first time at Oberlin?

Shelby Raynor: Yeah. The first time you play and understand is very magical, but the first time you just play is really freaky. But it’s really cool, because you’re coming in and you’re learning from your peers who have also probably never played rugby before Oberlin.

Leah Cohen: Yeah. There’s a first time you learn to tackle, and it’s all very scary, and then you’re in a game and there’s all this adrenaline and you’re being picked up by strangers and you don’t even care. It’s wonderful.

Joey Velez: No, I played in high school, so it’s been seven years since I first started.

Dustin French: I started in Oberlin in my second year.

What’s your most memorable rugby moment at Oberlin so far?

SR: My funniest, most memorable moment that I can’t forget is [when] we played this club team  in Akron, and I didn’t have the ball. This lady came in to tackle me, and she kind of stopped, but she kept on running forward, so I ended up riding on her shoulders like she was a horse. But then the crazy thing was once I rolled off her, because I was really confused as to what was going on; I made eye contact with her. She was, like, in her forties, and I thought, “Oh my god, someone’s mom just tackled me.” Also, I’m a jumper, so I get thrown up into the air, and the first time I got thrown up, I won the ball and ripped it out of the other person’s hands, and I just remember it being the most amazing thing. And I just remember people being like, “Go to space, Spaceman!” because that’s my nickname. I went to space, and it was the most amazing satisfaction.

LC: My most memorable game that had little pockets of memorable moments was the first one we played this semester. We only had nine players, and you’re supposed to play with 15 players, so we borrowed six of their players. But that was my first game being captain, and I just thought “Cool. I’ll [start] doing this now.” So there was this vacuum for someone to be leading on the field and [making] every single tackle that they could, and I did it, and it was amazing. There was this one moment where this girl was crossing the try zone. What we tell everyone is that if someone’s going through the try zone, [you should] get underneath them and hold the ball up so they can’t touch it down. But no one ever does that because it’s really hard. But I worked out a way to get my body there, and I bear-hugged her. I was just like, “Wow, I did the thing that I told everyone to try to do and didn’t expect anyone to do.”

JV: Definitely last spring season, when we beat John Carroll 35–15, a team that was second in our division. The seniors on the team at the time had never beaten them in their Oberlin careers. We were all kind of shocked, to be honest. Everyone played to their potential, and the seniors went all out.

DF: My freshman year after my first game against Kenyon is definitely something I’ll never forget. After the game, I was surprised, talking to the players. After you’ve hit these people and hated them for 80 minutes, I was surprised how much fun it was to hang out with them.

How do you think your fall season went?

SR: We improved astronomically from our first game to our last game. In our last game, the first half was amazing. Kenyon scored [only] once, and we were marching down the field. So if you look at games on a scale of improvement, we are in a much better place now.

LC: I also think our team’s gotten a lot more cohesive. There’s been this huge turnover, and we’ve lost a lot of the players we were used to relying on on the field, so a lot of vets had to stand up in terms of gameplay. We also had to work with the rookies.

SR: And it takes a whole season to get a rookie up to speed. Usually we have enough vets so we can diffuse that a little bit, but I think it’s looking up.

DF: We had eight new players, and some of our seniors left unexpectedly, so the team was different than what I was used to. I was tackling more, but it was definitely still fun. We played against a lot of teams with paid coaches, too, but it was still fun to compete, even though playing got harder.

JV: We had about nine seniors who left — a lot of power players — so we knew right away that we were going to have to step it up. It was definitely tough, but we competed well with our new players and despite injuries.

What are you looking forward to for the spring season?

SR: Spring is fun, because [we play] sevens, which is half the normal number of people. Sevens is kind of a mess, which is fun because we’re kind of a mess in the sense that we can pick up the ball, and we can run, and we can tackle someone. That’s all sevens is.

LC: We also have a lot of fast players on our team, which works much better in sevens than it does in fifteens. I’m also excited because at the end of this season, there were a lot of rookies where you could see it click for them in the last game. This one rookie got the ball and just crashed, and you could see four people just pulling on her and [they] couldn’t get her down. She was just moving forward, and it was amazing to watch her. Like, “Wow, you have become a runner.” I feel like there are a lot of rookies that are into it and are going to stick around for the next season, so it’ll be fun to see them come into that more.

SR: …Especially since we’ve already taught them to play rugby, which was the difficult part. I’m also excited because we’ll have enough players for sevens, whereas this season we were always kind of on the edge, and it was like we were getting lucky when people weren’t getting injured.

JV: We had a bunch of new players starting in the fall, so now that they have the experience, and we all know how to play together as a team, I expect that we will be playing at a much higher level and put in some serious work.

What are your favorite and least favorite parts of being members of a club sport?

SR: My least favorite part is that I think we definitely struggle with our relationship with the College and the training resources. A big problem we have is that rugby is an incredibly physical sport and puts a lot of demand on your body, and when you don’t have access to a trainer before and after practice, it’s pretty concerning sometimes. We’ve had players break things at practice or twist ankles really badly and have had to go to the hospital, and we’ve had to call Safety and Security, and they couldn’t go to a trainer.

LC: And even the training resources we do have are so inaccessible, like we can only go during certain hours.

SR: And the trainers are super helpful when you do go, so it’s frustrating because we can’t quite get to them. And now that they have that whole new open locker room system, it’d be nice if club sports could get locker rooms too. I really do like being on club though. I think it allows us to socially bond more as a team, and it takes just enough pressure off so you don’t think that it’s dominating your life. And we encourage everyone to come to practice, but it’s okay if one day you can’t go to practice, no one’s going to freak out — we just want communication so we know numbers.

LC: I think it’s also awesome for people who haven’t played rugby their whole lives to come in and learn a new sport, because there’s no infrastructure teaching young people how to play rugby in this country anywhere.

SR: And the whole self-coach aspect of club sports is so cool. You have students who maybe know something about rugby leading you, and the sharing of knowledge is really quite incredible; the fact that each season we manage to get around 10 people up to speed with rugby and get them into a game is very cool to have happen.

JV: I would say that club sports don’t require that you come to every practice, but you have players that do it regardless, and I feel like that’s one of the biggest parts of rugby: the dedication. I love watching new players come in and get excited about rugby and want to be there. Especially for club sports, you get out of them what you put in.

DF: Definitely seeing people change on the field. You see people outside of matches being very nice, but on the field, it’s the complete opposite. I think that aspect is really cool. I think rugby is very cathartic; you get to hit people and get away with it.  [Laughs.]