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Miller Relishes Building Aquinas Women's Rugby From Ground Up

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Miller Relishes Building Aquinas Women's Rugby From Ground Up

Laura Miller is building the Aquinas women's program from the ground up.

Recruiting for college rugby programs is a tough part of the head coaching job, and when you’re starting a program from scratch, it can be even tougher.

Laura Miller understand the pitfalls and difficulties and has embraced the challenge as Head Coach of the women’s rugby team at Aquinas College in Michigan, working to build a women’s college program where none, not even a club, existed before.

“It’s literally just you for a while and nothing else,” Miller told Goff Rugby Report. “I am fortunate though that I have Lance as well and we’re working together when we can.”

Lance would be Lance Hohaia, who is starting the Aquinas men’s program.

But Miller has been though this before, starting the Alderson Broaddus program, men and women, all by herself. She was the only rugby person at the school.

“You are representing the entire sport to the school,” she said, “and you’re also representing the school to the rugby community.”

And they might not have jerseys and rugby balls while they recruit, they do have things other college rugby teams work really hard to secure—athletic trainers, field space, and a marketing department.

Marketing has been important because Aquinas is not a well-known school. That is why, in part, the institution embraced rugby. With the men’s team now playing and the women’s team actively recruiting, the name is getting out there.

Using the Right Tools

Miller has made extensive use of the Next Phase Rugby app, which connects college rugby programs with high school rugby players, and that helps her make connections.

She uses it, in part, to convey her own energy about the school.

“When I was hired for this position it was still the height of the pandemic so we did it all virtually,” she said. So she didn’t see the campus in person until she already had the job. “I was thrilled to see how beautiful and amazing the campus is when I finally arrived. And then I started building relationships with alumni and professors—it’s a small school with great energy.”

Miller relates how she was talking to a high school player who wanted to study psychology. Miller was able to call a psychology professor at the school and get first-hand information about the department. That kind of small-school accessibility has helped her help recruits.

And so has Next Phase.

“Next Phase gives us brand recognition,” Miller said. “I have a profile where I can say yes, we are a varsity program and this is what we have to offer. It levels the playing field for us because all colleges get equal access. It has given me the opportunity to have tons of conversation with athletes who I may never have seen.”

In addition, she’s able to filter out non-starters. If a high school player isn’t interested in starting a new program, then Miller can move on to those who embrace that challenge. She is up front about what Aquinas is, because she wants players who are invested in building it.

Protection For Everyone

One of the aspects of Next Phase that Miller liked so much she spoke about it during her presentation at The Rugby Summit in Wisconsin in January is that of how it protects both student-athletes and coaches.

A coach on the app can’t just talk to a player; the coach has to ask permission for contact. This protects student-athletes from being overwhelmed with messages and being unable to say no, and it protects coaches from misunderstandings.

“It’s a player-centered platform,” said Miller. “The players are the ones in control of who talks to them—they have to say yes, and giving that consent is very important. It’s important for varsity programs but perhaps more so for club coaches. In a varsity environment we have our own set of rules regarding communicating with minors and we answer to the Athletic Department with this.” 

But club coaches might not have that guidance, and so having an app where the minor student-athlete gives consent for contact protects those club coaches.

“And with the consent it at least shows they have some level of interest in your program,” said Miller. “I don’t want to be cold-calling student-athletes.”

Broadening Horizons

College rugby trams are all competing for the same pool of student-athletes, “so the more power we can give the student-athlete, the better. They should be the ones in the driver’s seat.”

Miller said she has spoken with many students who she would not have seen or contacts had it not been for the Next Phase Rugby app. And the app allows the high school players to put in detailed academic and rugby information, which allows the coaches to discuss, when they have a conversation, more in-depth issues.

More about Aquinas Women's Rugby here>>

“In the fall I am on the app every day,” said Miller. “At present I am switching over to the 2023s, so it slows down a bit, but last year from August through October I was on it every day.”

So how is Aquinas women’s rugby? They have a nice list of commits and combining with on-campus recruits will have a full roster for the fall.

The ball is in the air then. Aquinas Women’s Rugby is getting started.