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UMass students help train U.S. Women’s Rugby National Team hopefuls

Also see: Check out Jeff Bernstein’s photo slideshow of the training here.

One by one, they stepped up to the pillar, and one by one they jumped up and smacked the daylights out of it.

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

And that was just one of the tests for the United Stations National Women’s Rugby Team, early on Saturday morning at the Totman Gymnasium at the University of Massachusetts.

Hopefuls Rosie Miesner, Nicole Humphrey, Jessica Peterson, Elizabeth Fierman, Rebecca Brafman and Katie O’Malley participated in a set of fitness and training tests at UMass on Sunday, aided by the kinesiology department and its interns – UMass students Justin Brown, Matt Pilla and Jordan Marks.

The tests were conducted at The Bodyshop, located in Totman gym, where Marks doubles as both the fitness assessment director and desk clerk. On Saturday, Marks conducted skin tests on the athletes in order to measure their body-fat percentage.

The testing and conditioning tests on Saturday afternoon were happening in what coach and events coordinator Richard Ashfield called an Eagle Training Center. He explained that because the national rugby team is so big, the staff decided to get athletes together with these different training sessions. Ashfield said training sessions include mental skill, strength, weight training and nutrition workshops.

“[We focus on] all things [players] can’t generally get on their own,” said Ashfield. “The hope is to do this every six weeks through the spring. We hope to be at UMass three times in the spring if everything works out well.”

Though kinesiology lecturer Elizabeth Frechette organized the event, lecturer Judi Labranche assisted Marks with the tests. And while Marks and Labranche tested one athlete at a time, Pilla and Brown worked with the other members of the team with squat-lifting and vertical jumps – a demonstration that had the different athletes hop high and smack their hands against a pillar to measure their vertical jump.

“I think it’s a great experience,” said Marks. “It wasn’t what I expected. They’re really down to Earth. I thought it was going to be different. And for me, Matt and Justin, we can all use the practice in a real-world situation like this.”

While Marks considers training and testing the athletes to be a real-world experience, the women’s rugby players and Ashfield admitted to having a different real-world experience that happens outside the rugby world.

“Most of [the players] are grown-ups with real lives,” said Ashfield. “It’s really trying to deliver the knowledge for them. We’re trying to get them to think about nutrition, think about their programs and think about how they actually plan. It’s an amateur sport, they don’t get paid for it so they’ve got to find that balance between the real world and trying to be a high-class athlete.”

This includes Brafman, who has been with the rugby team since 2004 when she was just a college student. Not only does Brafman compete on the rugby pitch, but also is in her residency, practicing emergency medicine. Brafman said she has seen the rugby program progress over the years and that doing these tests will help the team heavily in international competition.

“Any time you get individual attention or a more targeted approach it’s going to help individual athletes and that’s going to push the pool as a whole,” said Brafman. “It’s going to make us more competitive internationally.”

International competition is on the horizon for the club, as the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup in England nears. Ashfield said the team working in The Bodyshop on Saturday were all hopefuls trying to make the national team once it starts camps in the summer.

Camps fill up with players from across the country, Ashfield said, and that getting together for workshops like the one in Totman help brings the players closer together, which will build team chemistry.

“Because the company’s so big [with] 60 athletes [from] California to Boston it’s really hard to get them together,” said Ashfield. “It’s an amateur sport so a lot of times they’ve got to pay for their own flights. It’s a big expense. The women’s national team staff tried to come up with a way to give them this high-performance environment on a more regular basis without breaking the plank.”

The national team staff, according to Frechette, sent the UMass kinesiology department a letter asking if the University wanted to assist in hosting the testing. When the letter was sent out to faculty, Frechette was onboard from the get-go.

Despite her enthusiasm for the opportunity to host women’s rugby, which doesn’t receive a heavy amount of funding, Frechette is still cautious about the future, beyond Saturday’s event.

“I would consider it like a pilot weekend to see how it goes and move forward from there,” said Labranche.

Herb Scribner can be reached at hscribne@student.umass.edu and followed on Twitter @MDC_Scribner.

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