A Common Purpose

Men’s Rugby head coach T Fletcher makes inclusion a winning strategy.

The sport of Rugby is, in many ways, the perfect metaphor for American International College: its unique challenges and opportunities require a diverse group of people with different talents and experiences to come together for a common purpose in order to succeed.

When the Yellow Jackets brought in T Fletcher to become the program’s head coach in January 2019, that connection was not lost on her.

“AIC promotes diversity, and it’s very parallel to the belief of rugby where there’s a spot for all body shapes and sizes. Inclusion,” she says.

A standout at Appalachian State University in both soccer and rugby from 2002 to 2007, Fletcher was an all-American for the Mountaineers in 2006 and then embarked on a professional playing career, primarily with the Raleigh Venom from 2007 to 2018. She also gained coaching experience working with The Hustlers, an East Coast-based team that won 92 percent of the tournaments the team entered, and earned invitations to the USA Women’s Sevens National Team camp in 2009 and to international competitions in 2010.

When she took over the Yellow Jackets, Fletcher became, and remains, the only woman to be the head coach of a men’s top-level collegiate rugby program. “When I found out that I made history by being the first female to coach at the highest level in collegiate rugby, it amplified the pride I had in my team and the College,” she says.

Facing opposition such as Rutgers University, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the University of Southern California, the Yellow Jackets did not just compete in D1A College Rugby in her first spring season at the helm, but came near to the pinnacle, falling in the USA Rugby Collegiate Sevens National Championship game.

In doing so, Fletcher then became the first female coach to bring a men’s rugby team to a national title game. Fletcher had a full summer to build the team upon the foundation laid last spring. As defending Liberty Rugby Conference champions in fifteens and national finalists in sevens, the Yellow Jackets have a target on their backs, and graduation meant that star players had to be replaced.

Fletcher went into the recruiting season with that need in mind, with a goal to “continue to drive the positive team culture and recruit players that already embody that or ones that will build towards it and drive excellence off the pitch in the classroom, community outreach, and involvement within the institution,” she says.

The players have bought in.

Senior Tommy Clark notes, “Playing with [Fletcher] as our head coach has definitely given this program a big jump. . . . She’s been a part of the international level of the game, and it shows with how organized she is with training, recovery, and the extras that the team needs. . . . She is very determined, and I know—in the years to come—she will do great for this program.”

“It’s great knowing I play for someone who pushes to get the best out of me,” says senior Cristian Ortega. “When you play for Coach Fletcher, you know two things: one, she’s disciplined, so her players will be too; two, she’s the most supportive coach I’ve had when it comes to off-the-field.”

That off-field success is ultimately what Fletcher goes back to as the core of everything the team does. “My goal,” she says, “is to provide the tools to these young men to build skills that will set them up for success in life—not just rugby.”

 

By Seth Dussault ’11, MEd ’15 :: photo by Leon Nguyen ’16