They have arrived at the precipice of Canadian university rugby – a momentous accomplishment given their humble beginnings and perhaps on an even grander scale – the fact that they’ve been able to do it together.
For Isabel St. Pierre, Heather Ritchie and Tessa Strom, their journey to the U Sports National Women’s Rugby Championships in Ottawa, Ont., has been special for a laundry list of reasons.
Paramount is the pride that each feels for each other, as three friends from Red Deer are representing the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds at nationals this week.
St. Pierre was the first to arrive at UBC three years ago – to a program that wasn’t winning much, had a volunteer coach and wasn’t really on the radar for many athletes. She went first and foremost for the schooling, chasing a science degree. Rugby was there and she figured why not.
“I’m pretty sure in my first year we won maybe one game and got beat by every team by a lot. We were struggling. The program was not even close to where it is now,” she recalled.
“We have so many more opportunities now than when I first started. We have more kits and funding and Dean (Murten) as being a full-time coach has really helped the last two years.”
She’s a little bit like the big sister for Ritchie and Strom, two former Lindsay Thurber High School students in their first season with the Thunderbirds.
“It helps to have someone from Red Deer on the team, having (Isabel) here is a really good transition. She’s a good resource for us to interact with,” said Ritchie.
The trio played together in the summer with the Red Deer Titans and forged a strong bond that they carried all the to Vancouver.
This season has been a bit of a perfect storm for the Thunderbirds. After two tough losses to open the U Sports Canada West season, they went on a heater and won five straight games, including a barn-burner to capture the Canada West title over the University of Calgary Dinos.
That booked the program’s first trip to nationals and was also its first conference final since 2006. They denied U of C its fourth straight Can West title.
“That was the first time in program history, so that was fun. It was really cool,” said St. Pierre.
Riding that high, nerves seemed to kick into high gear this week when the Thunderbirds played Laval in the Championship quarter-final Wednesday. Laval jumped out to an early lead and beat UBC 32-12.
“I think we started off with a bit of nerves because it was our first time at nationals. Rusty start, just because it was something we had to get into. We had to learn their style and how to deal with that. By the second half, we started to pick things up,” Storm said.
Your UBC player of the match is front row player, Heather Ritchie! pic.twitter.com/Xj9jzmtHaY
— UBC Women's Rugby (@UBCWRugby) October 30, 2019
One standout for the trio was Ritchie capturing the player of the game honours in that loss. Strom was quick to jump in when asked what made Ritchie’s performance special that particular day.
“What I always say is Heather does all the dirty work on the field. She may not be the flashiest player but she’s always there at the rucks and that breakdowns and her effort is 100 per cent the entire game, she doesn’t stop… I know how hard she works and how motivated she is all the time,” Strom said.
Thursday was an off-day for the crew, relaxing and getting focused for Friday, in what could be their final game this season together. UBC will play St. Francis Xavier in the consolation semifinal and with a win, will play in the consolation final Sunday.
“We’re super motivated. We don’t want to be done. We want another game,” Ritchie said.
However it ends, the journey was clearly worth the sacrifice for Red Deer’s rugby trio.
Three players from Red Deer also play for the Dinos, who are also at the U SPORTS Women’s Rugby Championship.
They opened the tournament with an 18-7 loss to the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees. That group includes Sarah Thomas, Emma Newton and Katherine Jensen. Red Deer’s Camryn Holland, in her rookie season, is playing for the Gee-Gees, who will square off with the Queens University Golden Gaels in the Championship semifinal.