Photo by Christine Troyke
Of the more than 1,000 active member schools in the NCAA, five have varsity women's rugby teams.
Only one of those -- Eastern Illinois University of all places -- is Division I.
Emily Chosewood, who started playing rugby two years ago, is going there in the fall. On scholarship. She is the first Gwinnett County girl to do so.
The Parkview grad played for one of the two high school club teams in Gwinnett -- there are just five in the state -- and led it to a state title as a senior.
She's flourished in a growing sport and is headed to a dominating EIU program that hasn't lost a match in three years. EIU outscored its opponents last season 618-63, including the last four by a shocking 335-11.
Despite those gaudy numbers and its place as the lone D-I program, EIU wasn't on Chosewood's college radar.
Her search began with something other than rugby, though that was still near the top of the wish list.
"My main deciding factor was the ROTC scholarship," said Chosewood, who also throws shot put and discus. "But then after I narrowed that down, rugby had a big part in it."
She looked at two of the three Division III colleges with programs, Norwich and Bowdoin, initially.
"EIU was never really one of the ones I thought of," Chosewood said. "My track coach actually e-mailed their coach about shot and disc. Then I made the connection that that was one of the varsity programs. Everything just seemed to fall into place."
Frank Graziano, the head coach of EIU's rugby team, also got the e-mail from Chosewood's throws coach at Parkview, Larry Satchwell.
"It gave a general background," Graziano said. "We went from there and it went very, very quickly.
"Within a matter of two weeks, we had her up for a visit. Everything worked out very well. We thought that it would be a very good fit for her."
But the situation was more complicated than that, Graziano said.
Chosewood, an honors student with excellent grades, had an ROTC nursing scholarship. It was, however, dependent on her attending a school in the Southeast. Charleston, Ill., about 180 miles south of Chicago, doesn't qualify.
So several departments at EIU worked to make it financially possible for Chosewood to attend the school.
The honors program opened up a slot for her -- she had the grades to qualify, but by that time the spots were all taken -- and the ROTC department found a different scholarship Chosewood could use.
"It was a challenge to find that extra money and kudos to our ROTC program and honors program," Graziano said. "We're excited to have her."
Chosewood is one of the few players with previous rugby experience Graziano has signed. She's also one of the very few to come from out of state. Graziano usually recruits athletes from other sports, especially track and basketball, and finds the Chicagoland area fertile ground.
"Some of my best girls, the first day they touched the rugby ball was the first day here," Graziano said.
That's one of the things that Chosewood finds so appealing about the sport.
"I feel like I'm going to have some advantage, having played," Chosewood said. "But rugby, it's a sport for anyone. If you have athletic ability, it doesn't matter your size, as long as you're fast and into teamwork, then you should be able to get it pretty easily."
The list of sports Chosewood has played is long. It includes softball, track, roller hockey, basketball and soccer.
But it wasn't until two years ago that friends encouraged her to try rugby.
"A couple of my friends played and they thought I would be good at it," Chosewood said.
They were right, and Chosewood doesn't forget to thank them regularly.
In her first game, Chosewood hardly understood the rules, but scored a try (similar to a touchdown) on a 50-yard run. It was the game-winner and she was hooked.
"You can go out in your first game and it looks like you don't even know what's going on," Chosewood said with a little chuckle that recalled her own experience. "But after the first game, it makes so much more sense. You just have to get used to it. And it becomes first nature. You just see the ball and you go for it."
With Chosewood as the leading scorer, Brookwood's club team was undefeated and beat Kennesaw Mountain in the state finals. She also has been selected to play in national tournaments the last two summers.
Chosewood, still just 17, was picked for the USA Rugby U19 South team last year and then for the U23 team this summer. Two other Georgians made the U19 team -- including Brookwood teammate Lona White -- but Chosewood was the only high school girl on the U23 squad.
Six teams from different regions of the country compete in these annual tournaments. The selection process is a two-day tryout and about 25 girls from six states make up the South's roster.
Chosewood's four-year ROTC scholarship has a service requirement of six years of active duty after graduation, but there's precedent for allowing athletes to keep playing. Which means Chosewood could still have the option of trying to make the U.S. rugby national team.
"That would be incredible," she said, her whole face lighting up at the idea.