Bridget Forsythe, a former basketball and softball player at Providence Catholic, was in her junior year at Illinois State University when some friends convinced her to join the ISU women’s rugby club team.
“From playing other sports and with the team aspect of the game, it came to me quickly,” she said. “The rest of it was learning a new set of rules, but being aggressive and wanting to make plays, it all clicked for me.”
After college, Forsythe moved back home to Manhattan.
“My cousin’s husband played for the local men’s team, the Shamrocks, and I watched them play,” she said. “I told my friend, Jenna Hall, that we should start a women’s team. She had been a good athlete growing up. She hadn’t ever played rugby, but she said she would help me get it started.”
That was 2003, the year the Manhattan-based County Will Morrigans were born. And look at them now. The Morrigans will host a Midwest Rugby Football Union Division II playoff game against Scylla from Milwaukee at 11 a.m. Saturday at Central Park in Manhattan.
Hall now works for the Secret Service. “Jenna has moved on to bigger and better things,” Forsythe said with a laugh.
Meanwhile, at age 37, Forsythe still plays the physically demanding sport and also is secretary of the Morrigans’ board of directors.
“You have to have 15 people for a full team, and those first couple years we struggled to get people to games,” Forsythe said. “We would have to contact other teams and tell them we had only 10 or eight players, and we went from there. Sometimes, we had to borrow players from other teams.”
That was then. There is no such issue anymore. In fact, the Morrigans have enough players on their roster that they have started playing some B side matches as well this season.
“What happened was Lincoln-Way High School had a rugby club, and a lot of girls went on to college and then came back and played for us,” Forsythe said. “They already had knowledge of the sport, which helped. But along the way, we also started getting girls who never played at all, and they fell in love with it.”
The Morrigans have enjoyed a successful season, beginning with a 36-0 win over Mizzou during the Manhattan Irish Fest in early March. Morrigans player Anne Verbic called the Irish Fest match “our biggest match, our favorite one.”
The team won the Nebraska Prairie Tournament in three weeks ago Wayne, Nebraska. Last weekend, they lost at Northshore, located north of Chicago, but they learned from the experience. Northshore may be the best team the Morrigans ever have faced.
Games are played in two 40-minute halves, with a 10-minute halftime.
“Rugby impacts you more physically than other sports because of the amount of contact, but it’s a tradeoff,” Forsythe said. “You hurt more, but it’s also much more rewarding for me. You build camaraderie. You’re out there depending on each other so much. You feel a real responsibility to your teammates.
“So I would say starting this team was one of the best ideas I ever had in my life. And physically, I am in much better shape than I ever would have been if I hadn’t been playing the sport.”
The Morrigans have players ages 18 on up. Forsythe said there is another player two years older than her, “and she still will kick butt out there.”
Verbic, a school teacher and Joliet native, has been with the Morrigans for a year. Besides playing with other rugby teams, she formerly helped coach the girls high school team that drew players from the four Plainfield schools.
“I played with the Fox Valley Vixens for the last 2-3 years, and I used to play with the Plainfield Storm before that team folded,” she said. “I knew a few of the Morrigans. They are always welcoming new players, and I’m glad to be with them.
“A couple of the girls I coached in Plainfield are playing with the Morrigans now, too. A lot of our girls have played college rugby. What really sets the Morrigans apart, though, is we are the only women’s team with a full-time coach in the state.”
COMPETITIVE AND FUN
That coach is David Harris-John. Under his guidance, the Morrigans feel they have a team capable of advancing beyond the first round of the Division II playoffs for the first time. The playoff trail will end with the national tournament in Denver.
The Morrigans are hoping to attract a crowd for Saturday’s playoff game. It’s an opportunity for potential fans – and perhaps prospective players – who always wondered what the game is about to come out and see it firsthand.
This statement appears on www.morriganrugby.com, the Morrigans’ website:
“Our team is just as fun as we are competitive. We take our games seriously. We are a very close family that accepts everyone for who they are. We look forward to practices and games not only because rugby is the best sport ever but also because we can’t wait to see each other and just have fun.
“The team is guaranteed to supply you with knowledge of rugby, best friends and memories of a lifetime. Just ask any Morrigan. That’s why our motto is, ’til the day I die.’ ”
So what about the team’s name?
The Morrigan comes from Irish folklore. It is associated with foretelling doom and death in battle. That’s what the Morrigans are plotting for their opposition Saturday and beyond.