Gaining Ground

Joya Clark ’14, Assistant Men’s Rugby Coach,
by Baylee Annis ’14.

“I think of rugby as a sport of evasion, power, fitness, finesse, and beauty.”
– Joya Clark ’14

Joya Clark ’14 (running with ball against Colby College, 2011) was a star rugby player as a Norwich student. (Photo: Jennifer Langille.)

Joya Clark ’14 (running with ball against Colby College, 2011) was a star rugby player as a Norwich student. (Photo: Jennifer Langille.)

Sunshine breaks through morning clouds outside the window as Norwich men’s rugby coach, Bob Weggler, settles into a wooden chair at his kitchen table. Weggler, who at 15 years on the Hill is one of the University’s longest-serving coaches, prefers to host the after-action meetings off-campus and within reaching distance of coffee and homemade sandwiches. Joining him are his assistant and two distinguished guest coaches: previous U.S. men’s national team coaches Ray Cornbill and George Betzler (who both act as rugby coaching consultants), to conduct the season’s first post-practice review. Beyond the screen door, crickets hiding in the grass seem to echo the chorus of male voices inside. The assistant coach interjects to report the progress of the team’s backline—that voice belongs to Joya Clark, the 23-year-old Norwich alumna who has returned for her latest season as second in command of the men’s team.

A frizzy halo of chestnut-colored hair, held back from her forehead by sunglasses, frames Clark’s face. She wears a lone accessory, the string of a whistle tucked beneath a jersey embroidered with the Norwich men’s team’s traditional Ruggadillo logo. At the meeting, “Coach Clark” leans forward in her chair and mentions the connection developing between the scrumhalf and the flyhalf, who continue to give “clean, quick balls to our centers.” She leans back and listens, her brown eyes reflecting the sunlight as she shifts her gaze to anyone speaking at any particular moment, occasionally raising her eyebrows as she agrees or disagrees with her fellow coaches.

A Fierce Competitor

Assistant Men’s Rugby Coach Joya Clark ’14. (Photo: Mark Collier.)

Assistant Men’s Rugby Coach Joya Clark ’14. (Photo: Mark Collier.)

Some years before she found rugby and became one of the most decorated players in collegiate rugby history, Clark demonstrated high aptitude as an athlete. During her high school career, she ran with a 4×800-meter relay team that placed top 10 in the nation. Clark stumbled into rugby at age 16, and knew she’d found her calling in the “physicality of rugby … the athleticism necessary, the constant drive to go forward, the strategic thinking required.” She went on to earn formidable respect on the Scotia-Glenville (N.Y.) High School rugby pitch as all-time leading scorer and toughest tackler. To refine her game, she joined the Saratoga Mustangs, part of a competitive U-19 (under age 19) youth league. When it was time to look ahead toward college, she met with Norwich women’s rugby coach, Austin Hall. And, after playing on several state and regional select-side teams with some Norwich players, she came to appreciate “their energy, drive, and work rate,” and knew her future would bring her to Norwich.

Clark says she chose Norwich University because it is “one of the rare universities in the nation that takes rugby as seriously as its other sports.” Rare is right—Norwich is one of the few universities nationwide to grant varsity status to rugby and employ full-time coaches for both men and women. She entered Norwich as a civilian freshman in 2010. Under Hall’s guidance, her game flourished, and from 2011 to 2014 she helped lead the team to six national championship titles in the 15s and 7s games. During those years she was recognized as a USA Rugby U-20 National Team Member, USA Rugby Collegiate All-American, and USA Rugby 7s National Championship Series MVP. Coach Hall called Clark a “fierce competitor” and “impact tackler, a player capable of far more than simply adding points to the scoreboard.” She graduated in 2014 with an unprecedented record of 140 tries scored (100 in 15s, 40 in 7s).

Former USA Rugby Men’s Eagles Coach Ray Cornbill, a longtime consultant for Norwich men’s rugby, recalls watching Clark develop into a “great athlete” as a student. Now, he sits beside her in the circle of coaches, and has observed her coaching as an “extension of her attitude as a player, a real thinker who contemplates every decision.”

A Trailblazer

In 2015, Jen Welter became the first female NFL coach when the Arizona Cardinals hired her as an assistant coaching intern for preseason and training camp. (Interestingly, Welter’s knowledge of tackling stems from her experience as a rugby athlete for Boston College, a team that was once a rival competitor to Norwich University.) A year earlier, Becky Hammon became the first full-time assistant coach in NBA history when she signed with the San Antonio Spurs. Their stories, and others like them, turned the spotlight on an ongoing shift in attitude toward women coaching men in sports. Clark has joined that small, but growing, number of women breaking ground in that national transformation.

Head Coach Bob Weggler recognized Clark as a coaching candidate by the strength of her leadership as a collegiate player. Following a successful senior year—during which the women’s team won both Division I 7s and 15s national championships—Weggler offered her a trial run to assist the men’s team in the spring 7s season. With that move, Clark became the first woman to join the Norwich men’s rugby coaching staff. It turned out to be a positive fit for both coach and players, and that following summer Weggler offered her the assistant coaching position, putting her into the roles of backs’ coach and 7s technical advisor.

As a developing coach, Clark studies the techniques of the veteran coaches around her, drawing on their influences. She reflects on Coach Hall’s practice of collaborating with his athletes. “He innovated women’s collegiate rugby by focusing on finesse, efficiency, and power,” she says, adding that she became “fascinated with that style of play.” While she takes coaching seriously, she doesn’t discount the power of laughter: “Playing rugby is fun—winning, losing, tackling, running. Practice has to be fun for players to enjoy their season, because it’s not just about winning on Saturday.”

While a student-athlete, Norwich men’s rugby assistant coach Joya Clark earned a reputation as a ferocious tackler. In this series of four photos taken during a practice session, Clark demonstrates the proper technique for a “2-v-1” tackle—when two rugby players simultaneously tackle and poach the ball from an opponent. (Photo: Mark Collier.)

While a student-athlete, Norwich men’s rugby assistant coach Joya Clark earned a reputation as a ferocious tackler. In this series of four photos taken during a practice session, Clark demonstrates the proper technique for a “2-v-1” tackle—when two rugby players simultaneously tackle and poach the ball from an opponent. (Photo: Mark Collier.)

In just one season, Clark made a clear and positive impact on the players, and her experience as a backfield player has propelled the team’s progress. Since she joined the coaching staff, Hall says, “I’ve seen the men’s team use more width on the field, more ball handling, and more creativity from the backfield.” Hall also observes the balance of Clark’s strengths vis-à-vis those of Coach Weggler, who was a forward during his playing years. “They complement one another,” he says.

Weggler agrees with Hall as to Clark’s strength as a backs’ coach, “Coach Clark has an excellent grasp of the game at her young age. The backline has learned a lot from her,” Weggler says, adding, “As one of our wingers remarked recently, ‘Coach Clark really knows the back three positions [referring to the two wings and the fullback].’”

Cornbill, the former USA National Men’s Coach, is particularly impressed by Clark’s strong communication with the players and her enthusiasm for leading the backline. “Her athletes know what she expects because she demonstrates it clearly.” He also notes her ability to address her male athletes with relative ease, and expects that she will only continue to grow in this regard. What Clark’s colleagues see is that she took on, and succeeded in, earning the respect of the players.

Climbing the Coaching Ladder

Austin Hall, one of the most respected women’s rugby coaches in the U.S., says he looks forward to the path Clark will forge in the sport. “I think she has unlimited potential as a coach—whether of men or women,” Hall says. “She has the potential to go to the highest level and just keep rolling with it. She should climb that ladder as far as she can go.”

This level of enthusiasm for more female coaches in rugby is an emerging trend across the country. As rugby inches toward earning a berth in the Olympics, high school and college teams are cultivating talent and picking up experienced coaches, including an increasing number of women. One example is Farrah Douglas, head coach for the junior varsity rugby team at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. Under Douglas’ leadership, Gonzaga has gained a dominant presence in the sport, ranking in the top five nationwide since 2010. A capped Eagle with the women’s national team, Douglas is the lone female coach in the school’s history. Coaches like Douglas and Clark are changing the landscape.

As a senior wing, Joya Clark ’14 appeared in the May 19, 2014, Sports Illustrated section, “Faces in the Crowd.” During her collegiate career, she was recognized as a USA Rugby U-20 National Team Member, USA Rugby Collegiate All-American, and USA Rugby 7s National Championship Series MVP. (Graphic: Norwich Athletics.)

As a senior wing, Joya Clark ’14 appeared in the May 19, 2014, Sports Illustrated section, “Faces in the Crowd.” During her collegiate career, she was recognized as a USA Rugby U-20 National Team Member, USA Rugby Collegiate All-American, and USA Rugby 7s National Championship Series MVP. (Graphic: Norwich Athletics.)

“Women coaches bring a different headset to the game than male coaches,” Clark says. She describes her vision of the game of rugby as being “so much more than a physical, hard-hitting game—I think of rugby as a sport of evasion, power, fitness, finesse, and beauty.”

She is evidently onto something. Rugby is currently the fastest-growing team sport in America, with the number of youth and college teams soaring. She points out that by 2020, women’s rugby is expected to gain status as an NCAA sport. But despite the growth of the game, Clark doesn’t hesitate to paint a realistic picture of the future. “If [the U.S.] wants to compete with the rest of the world, we not only need to give our youth access to rugby during elementary school—we need athletic support from our higher-level universities. They need to look to Norwich as an example,” she says, shaking her head and falling silent for a moment. “We have some of the best athletes here in the USA; they’re just not playing rugby—yet.”

Clark plans to be part of those changes that will ultimately elevate rugby to its next levels, particularly the women’s game. “I’m excited to see how far women’s rugby advances within the next five years,” she says.

Grand visions aside, Clark remains focused on the season ahead of her. A few hours after the coaches finish up their meeting, laughter echoes across the Dog River Pitch. A small group of players surrounds Coach Clark, joking around. The men’s team begins the scrimmage, and Clark weaves through the backline asking questions. Who are you marking? What space are you attacking next? The team engages in phase play, uninterrupted by whistle or instruction. Clark moves around the field in a crisscross pattern, lowering to her knees to pull patches of weeds from the pitch, simultaneously intoning, loud enough for all to hear, “Launch together!”

In that moment, her devotion to the game shines through. Clark isn’t a coach who needs to boast of her own collection of accomplishments to guide her athletes; she leads in the quiet manner of action. A long whistle blows, signaling the end of practice. Roughly 50 men stand shoulder to shoulder, sweating and rowdy from the day’s accomplishments. Wedged between a 6-foot lock and a 6-foot-2 center, the diminutive Clark stands, one hand waving, animated with excitement over the last play, the other gripping a fistful of weeds.


About the Writer: During her Norwich years, Baylee Annis ’14 served as captain of the Norwich University women’s rugby team, received a College of Liberal Arts Presidential Fellowship and the Partridge Award, and won the Cowdrey Award for creative writing. She now works for the Adirondack Center for Writing and is the rugby ambassador for UBsports.com. An athlete in her own right, she plays prop for the USA women’s national rugby team, earning her first Eagle cap this past July against England in the Super Series.

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