When the Wildcats women’s rugby club team built a 35-0 halftime lead over the University of Central Florida and cruised to a 54-26 victory to capture the 2018 Division I Spring Championship, co-head coach Mary Triantafyllou (Credentials, ‘99) couldn’t help but reflect on the program’s history. 

She thought about her days as a member of the inaugural 1998 team, coaching the program’s first national championship in 2001 over Penn State (yes, that Penn State), and meeting her husband, Alex Triantafyllou (Construction Management, ‘98), with whom she coached the women’s team for 20 years.

Despite all the euphoria of winning a national championship, coaching or playing for an intercollegiate club team means you can never stop grinding.

For much of its history, the men’s and women’s rugby teams at Chico State have operated on a frugal budget. That has meant long car and bus rides, eight players crashing at a parent’s house on a road trip, and sending out emergency pleas for donations when a player needed new cleats.

“Though I think it toughened our players and helped them come together, it was a challenge to fully fund the program solely via support from rec sports and member dues,” said Alex Triantafyllou. “Especially as both the men’s and women’s teams developed into the premier rec sports programs on campus and teams that have been perennially nationally ranked.”

The women’s rugby team, now coached by Stacey Espinoza (Exercise Physiology, ’19), competes at the Division 1 club level. In addition to its two national championships, it has won multiple conference titles and made numerous Sweet 16 appearances. Alumna Megan Foster (Anthropology, ’15) is a starter for the women’s national team, the Eagles.

Not to be outdone, the men’s club finished the 2019 season as the D1-AA national runners-up. Led by coach Lucas Bradbury for the last 10 years, the program won the Pacific Western Rugby Conference and made the D1-AA Sweet 16 round in 2016. In 2016-17, the Wildcats upset UC Davis—the undefeated, defending national champions—with a program-changing win that propelled the team to the conference title again during the following season.

Years earlier, Alex and Mary had started thinking about how to build a lasting foundation for both programs while alleviating some of the financial pressure on the student-athletes.

“We wanted to model the endowment after Cal’s men’s club, which is the premiere collegiate program in the country,” said Alex Triantafyllou. “I thought if they have an endowment, why can’t we?”

Since then, they and other rugby alumni have stepped up and established a $70,000 endowment with the University Foundation in support of the men’s and women’s programs. It will provide lasting academic and programmatic support for both club teams.

The annual distribution of funds will boost the budget for travel, uniforms, and equipment. It will also open opportunities to students who may have felt the program was out of their financial reach because of annual dues. As the University’s first recreation sports endowment, the hope is that it will serve as a model for other rec sports programs.

“The endowment is an incredible achievement and it really shows how deep the connections we make in this sport run,” said senior Vanessa Somoza, a current player and biological sciences major. “Endowing the program will allow both the men’s and women’s clubs to invest in things like new tech, gear, and jerseys. It’s easy to be thankful to the alumni and looking forward to getting to know people who have loved and supported our programs through our ups and downs.”

Current players will get a chance to personally thank the alumni very soon. The annual alumni game, which pits former players against today’s student-athletes, returns for Wildcat Weekend and will take place on October 8, 2022, on the Rugby Grounds (Fields 6 & 7 on campus). The women’s match will kick off at 11 a.m. followed by the men at 1 p.m. Both matches are free to attend, and open to the public.

For Mary Triantafyllou, Wildcat Weekend is a chance to connect with players she coached over the last two decades to both dream about the future and celebrate the past. That includes the “movie-like” story of the 2001 national championship team, which shocked the collegiate rugby world, she said.

Many of the players who joined the team in 1998 had never played the game before. They had to learn not only the rules from scratch, but develop the toughness needed to compete in a physically punishing sport.

Building off the surprising success of the 2000 squad that had Stanford University on the ropes (save for a tough call that sent the game to overtime) and went on upset the US Navy team in the Sweet 16, everything came together the following year.

Chico State's 2001 National Championship Women's Rugby Team pose and smile
Chico State’s 2001 National Championship Women’s Rugby Team (photo courtesy of Alex Triantafyllou)

“Though it was only our fourth year in existence, it was the right group of girls who were 100 percent committed and supportive of each other,” said Mary Triantafyllou. “Throughout our run through Princeton and then Penn State, others were saying, ‘Chico Who?’ but we proved to them, and more importantly to ourselves, that we could be as good as anyone.

“It’s the kind of story that is made for alumni weekend.”