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Sorensen Finalist - Ilona Maher

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Sorensen Finalist - Ilona Maher

Ilona Maher gets through a gap for Quinnipiac against West Point. Donna Doherty Photo.

Ilona Maher is a powerhouse.

There’s no doubt about it. As the saying goes, you’ve got a lot of tools and your toolbox, but sometimes, the most useful one is the hammer. That’s not to say the Burlington, Vt. native isn’t a nuanced rugby player who can pass, catch, read space, and understand the flow of the game. But at the heart of it all, she’s a big, imposing back who wins rugby games.

Photo Donna Doherty photo.

“Playing with Quinnipiac has been great,” Maher told Goff Rugby Report. “We’ve constantly set goals, and when we reach those milestones, we set more goals. We wanted to win a title, and then we want to win a title again.”

Quinnipiac is the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association champion, winning the league of NCAA varsity women’s programs. They did so rebounding from a close loss to Central Washington to beat those same CWU Wildcats in the final, and they also won a non-league game against vaunted Penn State.

“Central Washington and Penn State were our toughest games,” Maher said. “That first Central Washington game we had bad weather for both. We made a lot of mistakes. Against Penn State, we wanted to be the team to beat them, and we did. That was a big goal for us. In the final against Central Washington, we went down 12-0, and a lot of team would have given up at that point. But we rallied and came back.”

Maher began playing rugby in high school, playing for the South Burlington HS girls team in Vermont. She had played field hockey, basketball, and was a pitcher in softball.

“I learned a lot from each of those sports,” said Maher. “I learned field vision from basketball, and field hockey has helped me understand what’s around me and anticipating how a game flows. Pitching in softball gave me that strength.”

Maher opted out of her senior year in softball as she was looking for something a bit faster paced. Her dad played rugby and she liked how intense the game was. 

“There wasn’t a lot of competition for us in Vermont, but it was really fun to be on the team and part of the group,” she said. “I never went into it thinking rugby was going to be the thing. I just wanted to play, and once I started playing I wanted to keep on playing.”

Maher joined Norwich, but the school didn’t seem to be right for her and she transferred to Quinnipiac, which she said was a better fit for her.

At 5-10 and strong, she was naturally made a forward, but after her transfer, she was moved to center.

“As a No. 8 all I had to do was run straight,” she said. “As a center, I realized that I have to be aware of everyone around me, and I have learned to incorporate my teammates. Sometimes I still have that mindset where I see how far I can go, muscling it through. But now I realize I just have to do some work, draw in some people, and use my teammates. I never have to worry about my teammates, they always come through.”

Maher said she has enjoyed the recognition being a Sorensen finalist, but added that even for varsity teams, finding recognition has been difficult.

“I’ve learnd it takes a lot to get recognition,” she said. “You can never be sure people will see how great a team you have. I know a lot of great rugby players take some time to be recognized.”

Maher wants to play at a high level after college, but she also has other goals, including coaching.

“I want to continue to play and coach rugby and I would love to play for the USA,” said the nursing major. “I don’t see a lot of female coaches coaching men’s teams and I would love to do that. I’m studying nursing and I want to be a nurse. My mom’s a nurse and she loves it, and I aspired to be like her.”

As we said, she’s a powerhouse, a powerhouse with a lot of skills.