Distance Can’t Stop Withrow Girls From Playing Rugby

Walnut Hills High School is the only school in the Cincinnati area that has a girl’s rugby team.  Any female student in the area who is interested in playing rugby at the high school level has only one option: playing for the Walnut Hills team. 

Walnut Hills currently has four players that attend Withrow University High School.  Two of these young ladies shared their stories with us.

11th grader Koryana Mitchell has played 2 seasons of rugby for the Walnut Hills team.  She was first introduced to the physically challenging contact sport by her older sister.  At first glance, Koryana was not interested in playing. “It was not my type,” she stated. “I didn’t like the idea of getting dirty.”  Coaches encouraged her to give it a try, and to her surprise she fell in love.  “Now I don’t mind getting dirty!” Koryana enjoys watching traditional football, so she finds the intensity of rugby play to be thrilling. 

Jayla Twitty, 12th grade, has been a part of the Walnut Hills team since its inception four years ago.  At first she was nervous to be playing on a “startup team,” but her concerns were quickly put to rest.  Like the young team, Jayla’s skills have continued to progress over the years. She has even been asked to play on three additional teams.  In her spare time, Jayla plays with an elite statewide team (the Celtic Elites), a regional high school team (Midwest Thunderbirds), and an All-star team.  Playing on the regional team has afforded her the opportunity to travel abroad to play rugby internationally.  In August 2019, Jayla will travel with her team to play a tour in Ireland.

Jayla Twitty tries to carry the ball past an opponent

The Evolution of a Team

Head coach Nick Geary has been involved with rugby his entire life.  When he began refereeing, he noticed that there were lots of female rugby teams in northern Ohio, but none in the Cincinnati area.  He decided to change that.  Thus, he reached out to the Walnut Hills Athletic Director to put together a team that included Walnut Hills students, as well as girls from across the district and beyond.  In addition to Withrow, girls from Anderson, Indian Hill and Mason High Schools currently play on the Walnut Hills team.

Coach Geary with members of the Walnut Hills girl’s rugby team

The Junior Varsity and Varsity teams at Walnut have approximately 31 players; which means some girls play for both teams to ensure that they have the minimum number of players and subs. Because there are not any other local teams for the girls to play against, they are required to play teams throughout Ohio including teams from Columbus and as far away as Cleveland.  Each year the team plays in an annual rugby tournament which is held in Indiana. 

The team plays half of their games away, which often requires the team to travel 2-4 hours just to play a game. This adds to the amount of time that teammates have to bond and get to know each other, but unfortunately also means that it is challenging for parents and family members to support the team during their away games. 

Building Lifelong Connections

Coach Geary is glad to have the girls interact with many girls outside of their immediate circle.  According to Geary, allowing girls from different schools and various walks of life has proven to be positive for the girls involved.  The girls get to see life from a different perspective due to playing with a mix of students they would not normally encounter in their day-to-day lives.  One student, for example, was struggling in her studies, missing a lot of school and experimenting with drugs before she joined the rugby team.  Geary has seen the young lady completely transform her life.  “Before she was hanging with the wrong crowd, now she has a scholarship!”

Playing with girls outside of her local school district, city and even beyond her state has helped Jayla build a vast network.  “Our coaches encourage us to build lifelong connections with the other players.  This will allow us to work together in the future.” 

How Rugby Brings Out the Best in Players

The sport of rugby is a very physical game.  Unlike most sports, the players are responsible for calling their own plays.  This helps the girls develop their decision making skills and self-reliance.  Rugby is also a great way to boost self-confidence and maturity among players.  Once when Geary was coaching a college team in upstate New York, a parent approached him to thank him for helping their daughter come out of her shell.  “She used to be scared of her own shadow”, proclaimed the parent. “Now she is an entirely different person.  It’s like she just bloomed!” 

Coach Geary attributes the traditions of the sport for helping to encourage team work and collaboration.  During the game the girls are required to band together for a play called the scrum.  The girls quickly learn to rely upon each other to prevent the risk of injury and to increase their effectiveness during this play.  Unlike most competitive sports, in rugby success on the field is seen as a group effort, and players are not often recognized individually.  After each game both teams come together for a social gathering, where they eat and drink and get to know girls from all over the state. 

2018 Walnut Hills girls rugby team

Both of the girls we interviewed were glad they joined the Walnut Hills rugby team.  “Stepping out of the box was great!  I had to do it just to get into this sport, now I actually love it.” Jayla encourages more girls to get involved with rugby.  “Just go for it!”

Activities Beyond the Classroom’s partnership with CPS means that more girls like Koryana and Jayla are able to be involved in extracurricular activities. In addition to managing the athletic budgets for all 13 CPS high schools, ABC employs athletic directors at nine local schools. We are honored to play such a key role in shaping the lives of CPS students.

Check out this awesome video, highlighting the Walnut Hills girls rugby team, done by WCPO/ABC-9.

WCPO/ABC-9’s story on the Walnut Hills Rugby Team