Rowe-Clark Math and Science Academy's girls rugby team forged a Chicago sports dynasty, and now that dynasty was facing its most severe test.
The charter school had racked up a six-year unbeaten streak until it was defeated a few weeks ago by its crosstown rival, Pritzker College Prep. Last Saturday, the two were about to face off again for the city championship when Rowe-Clark coach Ryan McBride called his players together at midfield.
"Remember, the key to this game is how physical you can be," he said. "If you're not physical, they're going to dominate possession and we're going to struggle all day. ... We have a lot of firepower on offense. We have to be allowed to use that."
It was the kind of red-blooded pep talk you'd expect from a football coach, but it applied equally well to this rough and increasingly popular sport.
Girls rugby has gained a stronghold in Chicago's Noble charter network of schools and is spreading quickly elsewhere in the country, offering many female athletes their first opportunity to partake in a sport in which bodily aggression is sanctioned and celebrated.
Coaches and players say rugby's bruising nature also forges closer than usual bonds between teammates and competitors, and lends some a hard-earned sense of confidence.
"When you tell someone you play rugby, they automatically get a little bit intimidated by you," said Pritzker junior Melinda Hernandez, 16. "They take a step back and kind of look at you in a different way, like 'Oh my God, this is a tough chick.' That's pretty fun."
The sport was born as an offshoot of soccer in the early 19th century when, according to legend, a pupil at England's Rugby School caught the ball and ran with it toward the opposing team's goal. Within a few decades, rugby codified its rules and spread throughout the British Empire.
It gained a following in America too, but soon morphed into the helmet-and-pads style of football that went on to dominate our national sporting landscape. The traditional form remained a niche sport, and for women, that niche was narrow indeed: By the early 1970s, teams existed at just a handful of colleges.
Darcie Fohrman, at the time the wife of a devoted amateur player, recalled going with him to a national tournament in 1975 and finding women's participation restricted to a short match conducted at the half of a men's game.
"We were so (angry) that the women were the halftime cheerleaders or something, so we came back to Chicago and said, 'We're going to start a women's team,' " said Fohrman, 70, a museum exhibition designer who now lives in California.
That team, the Chicago Women's Rugby Football Club, still exists, and it has been joined by many others. More than 350 colleges offer women's rugby, with a few even granting athletic scholarships. USA Rugby, the sport's national governing body, says about a fifth of the nation's 35,000 high school players are female.
Even so, most prep athletes play on teams that are not formally associated with schools. That's how it works in Chicago's suburbs, where teams centered in Elgin, Naperville and Plainfield draw girls from numerous high schools to compete in a spring season.
Chris "Milo" Milojevich, coach of the Plainfield Thundercats, said nearly 50 girls make up his organization's varsity and JV squads. More towns in the southwest suburbs would like to start teams, he said, but can't find knowledgeable coaches.
"Eventually, I think they will," he said.
While USA Rugby says more high schools are establishing their own programs, the Noble charter school network's eight-team league remains unique.
Jason Ronai, the network's director of health, fitness and athletics, said administrators were interested in the sport because of its proliferation at the college level.
"Anything that gives you a strong, positive connection to a school, like a varsity or club sport, is a good thing," Ronai said. "That connection increases the chances of you persisting through college."
Katie Rouse, a former University of Wisconsin player who now coaches at Muchin College Prep, can attest to that; some of her former Badger teammates remain her closest friends, she said. But she said rugby can also have more immediate benefits for girls.
"When they come in, they're usually very timid," Rouse said. "They don't want to be aggressive or assertive. You can see those who were unsure of themselves gaining confidence as they learn they actually do have the ability to do things they didn't think they were capable of."
Noble coaches said their players are the best recruiters, selling their peers on a sport most have never seen. Those fledgling players, in turn, must sell their parents.
"I was just kind of in awe of the courage that she wanted to try it, so I didn't discourage her," said Nakia Cole, mother of Rowe-Clark sophomore Nia Cole. "She said she wanted to try it and I said, 'Oh my goodness. Well, be as safe as possible.' "
The Rowe-Clark Masai Lions are the juggernaut of Noble girls rugby, winning six straight championships under McBride's guidance. McBride started playing in his native Ireland at age 5 _ "I just happened to enjoy bashing people around a bit," he said _ and his knowledge of the sport, combined with a deep roster and a demanding regimen of 6 a.m. practices, created a perpetual cycle of success.
But this season brought an unprecedented challenge to Rowe-Clark's hegemony. The Pritzker College Prep Jaguars, coached by former Vassar College player Nick Schmidt, handed Rowe-Clark its first loss in six years during a regular-season game in October, and the two schools met again Saturday at Altgeld Park to decide the city title.
Rowe-Clark was built on speed, with players fast enough to break from the pack and carry the ball over the try line, and that's just how the game began, staking the Masai Lions to a 5-0 lead. But as McBride had foreseen, Pritzker's powerful athletes rarely surrendered the ball when they took possession, grinding slowly but relentlessly down the field.
It was a punishing, hard-hitting game -- one player had to be taken away in an ambulance after injuring her shoulder -- and at halftime, with Pritzker still trailing, Hernandez tried to rally her teammates.
"If you catch another player (slumping), you go over to them and straighten them up, because we stand like champions," she said. "That's what I want to be. I don't want nobody looking like a failure because we're not failing. They're one try ahead of us. We can do it."
A few minutes into the second half, a Pritzker player shoved through a pile of Masai Lions to reach the goal area, and with a two-point conversion kick, Pritzker went up 7-5. The Jaguars never looked back, scoring two more tries on their way to a 19-10 victory.
Rowe-Clark's reign was over. McBride didn't mince words with his downcast players, saying mistakes had cost them the game, and urged them to remember the pain of losing as they looked forward to next year.
"But the most important thing," he said, "is that (Pritzker) deserves your respect. Let the tears flow. That's good. Let them see that, because that shows how much this meant to you."
After an emotional handshake line, the jubilant Pritzker team circled up to celebrate its triumph. Schmidt called the championship the result of his players' intense commitment and unity, and told them it would be something they would long remember with pride.
"You guys are going to go on and do great things," he said. "Those who are going to be sticking with us next year will have great things happening too. We're going to make them happen."