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Fighting Penguins rugby team still in practice

DCN Correspondent

Megan Swanson sits on her bed in a robe, leaning back against a Disney princess pillow. She just showered after rugby practice and is now examining her arms and legs carefully.

“Wow I can’t believe they are so big,? she says, poking and prodding the bruises that are scattered across her body. “It looks like I got beat up,? she adds, a proud smile spreading across her face.

This is Megan’s third year as a student at UMD, but it is her first as a Rugby player.

“Last year I was pretty unhappy here,? Megan says.

She applied and nearly transferred to Columbia College in Chicago, but ended up staying in Duluth because of finances.

The memory of last year fades away as Megan excitedly chats about the rugby team, their victories and losses, and the future.

“We are like a family,? she says. “We take care of each other.?

Listening to her discuss her teammates easily becomes confusing. The girls all call each other by creative (some borderline inappropriate) nicknames. Her original nickname was “Megs Over Easy? but has since been shortened to just “Easy.?

Rugby is often compared with American football, and the fans and players would like to make it just as popular. According to USA Rugby, the sport has grown 15 percent each year for the past four years.

UMD Women’s Rugby team, the Fighting Penguins, have been an enthusiastic part of that growth.

“It’s phenomenal,? Coach Steve Knauss says. “In 2001 there wasn’t even a program. Now we’ve gone to nationals two years in a row. I don’t think a lot of other teams have done that.?

For a second year the Fighting Penguins have taken home the title of D2 Minnesota Collegiate Champions. This spring they are headed to Sanford, Florida to compete in the national tournament.

“I have the girls work hard at fitness because they aren’t as experienced as some of the competition,? Coach Knauss says.

Before practice Megan describes the “super intense? two-hour workouts that helped the rugby team make it to nationals.

“We start out by doing passing work, because our team tends to drop the ball a lot.? She says, “We do a bunch of that, and if we end up talking too much (which girls do) then he has us do star jumps—so painful.?

Star jumps are a variation on the traditional jumping jack, with the addition of toe touching.

On many December evenings the warm open space of the indoor field house is filled with screams and laughter of the women’s rugby team. They are now preparing for nationals by meeting bi-weekly for a captain’s practice, or a practice led by the captains rather than the coach.

The season is over, but nationals are not until April.

“Because of the weather our region actually plays league matches from September to November,? Coach Knauss says. “The rest of the country starts in February. So we get a chance to heal. It gives us a little bit of an advantage.?

A more rigorous training schedule will pick up when classes resume at the end of January.

“Last year the team placed second at nationals,? Megan says. “I wasn’t there to help, but this year I’m a Fighting Penguin.?