When Bailey Regan got her first look at the girls rugby team, she felt a bit out of place to say the least.
"She thought it was the chess club," fourth-year Hudson Rugby Club girls team head coach Brittany Wheaton said.
Regan decided to give the sport a try. Let’s just say she hasn’t looked back ever since.
Hudson captured its first state crown after cruising to a 31-5 victory over Cincinnati Walnut Hills in the Ohio Rugby Division I title contest Saturday at Fortress Obetz Stadium in Columbus.
Regan, a senior, along with classmate Gillian DeRoche, were the team captains in 2018. Both players made significant strides for a team that formed in Hudson just eight years ago.
"They have been the heart of the team," Wheaton said. "They carried the girls on their shoulders."
There were some rough stretches for Hudson during the early years. It took some time for the physical, full-contact sport to intrigue teenagers in the 44236 ZIP code.
"The program didn’t take off originally," Wheaton said. "It started and then it folded and it started back up again."
Things have changed quite significantly in recent years.
Hudson reached the state final for the fourth time in five years. While Hudson established itself as a state power, the ultimate prize was still just out of reach.
And one opponent was a thorn in Hudson’s side each time it had a chance to be the last one standing.
That would be Cleveland St. Joseph Academy.
Hudson suffered convincing defeats to St. Joseph in its three previous trips to the title match.
This year, Hudson got some revenge when it upset St. Joseph 34-31 earlier in the season at Lavelli Stadium.
However, a rematch in the postseason never materialized, thanks to Walnut Hills’ upset win over St. Joseph in the state semifinals.
Still, Wheaton and her players will take their championship, regardless if they didn’t have a chance to take down their former nemesis.
"That was a really big win," said Wheaton, who shares head coaching duties with her husband Adam. "I think St. Joe’s has won six state titles and they’re a former national champion. We were confident we could beat St. Joe’s again."
That confidence was evident against Walnut Hills. Hudson led 17-0 at halftime and dominated the action the rest of the way.
"Walnut Hills actually scored in the last minute of the game," Wheaton said. "We forced turnovers and really controlled the contest.
"Neither the boys or girls had won a state championship. I’m really proud."
When the moment of truth arrived, Wheaton and her players couldn’t keep their emotions check.
It’s safe to say no one complained.
"There was a lot of hugging and screaming and we got a big trophy," Wheaton said. "Adam got a water jug dumped on him. We had a great group of parents that supported us."
Not surprisingly, the seniors led the way.
Senior Clara Lemal-Brown had two tries and seniors Maia Breeden, Samira Colbert and Dawn Falokun each contributed one try for Hudson.
Seniors Lucy Marshall added two conversions and Maia Breeden finished with one conversion for Hudson, which finished 10-4 in 2018.
By the way, Marshall, a standout soccer player, decided to give rugby a try this spring.
It worked out quite well for her, according to Wheaton.
"We were so fortunate to have Lucy this year," she said. "Her kicking was really huge for us. We beat St. Joe’s on her penalty kick."
To top it all off, Lemal-Brown was named Ms. Rugby Ohio. The Wooster resident is scheduled to continue her academic and rugby careers at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.
"Clara’s family relocated from New York," Wheaton said. "She met some Hudson girls when she played for the Midwest Elite team. She contacted us and wanted to play for a state championship team."
Other seniors included Miranda Basta, Clara Lemal-Brown, Samone Portis and Eva Johnson, who plans to keep playing at Youngstown State University.
Colbert, who plans to play rugby at Denison University in Granville, and Portis, who decided to continue her rugby career at Notre Dame College in South Euclid, are Shaker Heights’ residents. Falukon resides in Twinsburg and the rest of the players are from Hudson.
"We’re graduating a lot of powerhouse players," Wheaton said.
When the Wheatons took over Hudson four years ago, they emphasized going back to the basics.
It’s safe to say the players have taken those basics and ran with them.
"We’ve been fortunate to have really good numbers and really good recruiting classes," Wheaton said. "Rugby is kind of an oddball and outcast sport. Girls play rugby if they don’t have a sport they can play.
"We’re starting to turn the corner. Girls are starting to choose rugby as their primary sport."
This season was quite a whirlwind for the Wheatons. Just five days before the team started practicing, they had their first child, Graham.
"Adam really stepped up when I was on maternity leave," Wheaton said. "We also leaned on our assistant coaches, Scott Koebley, who has been with the program for seven years, and Sam Huffman, who is a first-year coach. Graham was kind of our good-luck charm."
Wheaton hopes the days of Hudson being a club team are numbered. While there are a few hurdles to clear, she is confident that day will come sooner than later.
"Eventually, it’s going to be recognized as a varsity sport," Wheaton said. "We had an awesome send-off. The Hudson police department gave us an escort for our bus all the way down Route 303. We also had a pep rally. That got the girls pumped up."
Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, firstname.lastname@example.org or @FrankAceto_RPC.