For Cairo-Durham High School graduate Mikaela Phillips, rugby was foreign land five months ago.
A decorated three-sport athlete that was a two-time soccer and basketball Patroon Conference All-Star, along with a top-hitter for the softball team, Phillips never envisioned she would be heading to Castleton University in August preparing for her freshman season on the rugby team.
Phillips’ journey toward the pitch started with her current coach Frank Graziano doing his due diligence as a coach and recruiter to get the athlete onboard.
“On April 15, I received a list of incoming freshmen from the admission office; Mikaela was included on that list,” Graziano explained. “That list also included high school sports participated in for each individual name. Multi-sport athletes like Mikaela make an easy transition into rugby.”
From there Graziano immediately started doing research into Mikaela’s athletic background through the internet, attempting to compile enough information to determine if the incoming freshman could transition smoothly.
Coming away impressed, Graziano immediately put together a recruiting package and traveled to Taconic Hills High School to watch a softball game.
At the time, Phillips was unaware that her athletic career was about the take a different turn.
“I had never even thought about playing in the sport before in my life, so at first I was confused and questioned why he wanted me to play,” Phillips said. “After talking with my parents about it, I thought I’d give it a try. I knew nothing about the sport coming into the season.”
On the same day, Graziano also had a conversation with Mikaela’s mother about the opportunity he was presenting her daughter.
From there, Graziano had several other opportunities to speak with the Phillips family at length about Mikaela making the transition to playing rugby in the fall.
Fast-forward to Aug. 20 — move-in day — and what would be the start of preseason camp.
With her three-sport background, Phillips was accustomed to the work and preparation that came during the preseason.
“In preseason, coach calls it ‘camp,’ we had three practices a day and it was very similar to basketball and soccer for me, so understanding it wasn’t that hard, but mentally getting over the fact that I will get tackled and tackle people was different for me,” she said.
Graziano’s preseason camp goes as so — there are four-a-day practices and the team completed 22 practice sessions in six straight days. This was a benefit for Phillips, who was coming in raw, because she was able to learn about the game.
After preseason camp, Graziano determed that Phillips’ best position was a lock, due to locks usually being the tallest player on the team. Locks are also supposed to be athletic, powerful — especially in the scrum — and physically tough, and Phillips checked all of those boxes for Graziano.
“Being a lock is a lot of leg work, in the scrum looking across and seeing the other team looking at you is very intimidating,” Phillips said. “My first time was a little tough, I couldn’t really get a good grip and I didn’t know how much pushing I would really have to do.”
After being in the scrum a few times, and with live games under her belt, Phillips has now gotten the hang of it and is continuing to improve in the position.
Phillips admits that it was in her second game that she really got over the process of tackling and being tackled, and now has a blast with it.
“It was super easy for me to pick up and I’m having a good time with it,” she said.
Phillips’ first game was Sept. 8 against LIU Post and as one could imagine, the new rugby player was nervous.
“Playing was a little nerve-racking I guess you could say. The first time I went to tackle a girl I really didn’t know what to do, but after that, and realizing what I did wrong, I didn’t have a problem with it,” she said.
It was a close game for Castleton, which led for the majority of the game before giving up the lead in the fourth quarter, falling 34-26.
Castleton faces a challenge most other teams typically don’t deal with, having small numbers and a lack of substitutes. The Lady Spartans only had 10 players and were gassed by the end of their first match.
However, in her first game Phillips scored her first try in the second half with 11:08 left in the contest.
“It was super exciting, not only for me, but for all of my teammates and coach,” she said. “It’s one of those moments I won’t forget here at Castleton.”
Through three games, Phillips has two tries, 23 tackles and 10 points. Unfortunately, the freshman was unable to play in the fourth game against Molloy last Saturday due to a shoulder injury she was nursing.
Graziano was most impressed by Phillips’ performance against Sacred Heart, where she was third on the team in tackles with 12.
“Mikaela had her breakout game against Sacred Heart. She was all over the field defensively,” he said. “She really exposed her competitive spirit and athletic ability as she chased down the opposing ball carriers from all over the field. Some of those chases were as much as 50-60 yards.
“You can see her confidence growing each training session and each game. She as a basketball mind, which helps a lot on the rugby field.”
Through three games Graziano has noticed that Phillips’ techniques are already doing well and that by the end of the season, she will have learned most of the technical skills.
However, Graziano deemed that Phillips’ decision-making will be her biggest area of growth.
“This is where Mikaela’s basketball background will be a huge asset. We already see her making some rugby plays because she was able to analyze what is right in front of her,” he said, “This usually happens on the defensive side first, and it already has, the offensive side takes more analysis in real time and naturally that means Mikaela looks slower.”
Phillips is part of the second recruiting class in the Castleton rugby program’s history, which is made up of mostly underclassmen.
Graziano believes that when Phillips is a junior, she will have enough rugby accumen under belt to become a player/coach on the field.
He also believes she will be an asset in the recruiting department. Graziano has his freshmen and sophomore players speak to prospective players and their families.
Phillips, now embarking upon two months playing her new sport, has embraced the entire opportunity with open arms.
“Honestly, I was confused at first, why rugby? But I thought I’d take the opportunity to try something new and I’m really falling in love with the game, even though I walk off the field with new bumps and bruises,” she said.
Five months ago, Phillips was just a senior in high school, playing in a softball game at Taconic Hills and now she is the future of a budding program at Castleton University.
“Mikaela has a bright future at our university and within our program,” Graziano said. “Can she be an All-American as an upperclassmen? I think so. She has all the characteristics and the drive to be the best she can be.”