by Lea Mihok
If one were to name a sport Vermonters excel at, they would probably choose skiing, snowboarding, or maybe even ultimate frisbee. Definitely not rugby, but recently Vermonter and BHS alumna, Ilona Maher, class of 2014, has risen to international rugby fame.
During her time at BHS, Maher played field hockey, basketball, and softball, but none of those sports really fit her as an athlete.
“Coach Archaki would tell me I’d rather run through people than around people,” said Maher.
Her senior year Maher stopped playing softball and started playing a sport that involves running through people. She joined a rugby team in South Burlington. The switch was not totally unprecedented as her father, whom it seems she inherited her rugby skills from, played the game and started the rugby program at Saint Michael’s college in Colchester, Vermont.
A conventional Rugby game consists of 15 players on two teams trying to score the most points in an 80 minute timeframe. The most common way to score is called a try. A try is worth five points and scored when a player touches the ball to the dead ball area behind their opponent’s goal. Players can run the ball forward or kick it, but cannot pass forward, only back. The opposing team stops the attacking team by tackling and regaining possession.
“I think rugby helped me to translate all those different skills that I’ve learned and really bring that physicality into it as well,” said Maher.
While playing for South Burlington Maher was selected for the Stars and Stripes assembly in Colorado, a camp that a many rugby stars have been chosen to attend. She was then selected to be part of the All-American team for the 2015 season.
“Ilona’s got kind of like two amazing strengths,”said Calder Cahill, Director of Digital Media and Communications at USA Rugby, “she’s an amazing mix of speed and power which I think makes her a really big asset.”
She went on to play rugby at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont where her team won the American Collegiate Rugby Association (ACRA) 7’s and 15’s National Championships. Maher then transferred to Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. There she flourished as a captain, an all-American, and a national champion. Now graduated with a degree in nursing she is playing a shorter, faster paced, and more taxing version of rugby called Sevens with the women’s national team the Eagles, and she’s proving herself an immediate standout.
“One of our favorite things to see with Ilona is when she has that ball, she finds a little bit of space she kind of puts her head down and just charges, just runs forward and really outpaces a lot of other players that you would assume would be the speed players which is kind of a really great quality,” said Calder Cahill.
Ilona certainly has a way of making herself standout. During the Glendale Sevens tournament in October Ilona scored seven tries, earning a place as co-runner up for most tries scored in the tournament. She is clearly more than capable of playing high level rugby, but not everyone understands her love of the game.
“When guys say they play football or guys say they play hockey we don’t bat an eye at its” She said, explaining that people are often surprised when discovering Ilona and her teammates (especially the smaller ones) are rugby players,“(It’s) this idea that women can’t play a tackle sport yet it’s the norm for men to play a contact sport.”
Despite the rougher aspects of rugby, both Ilona and Calder Cahill described rugby’s emphasis on safety, and the good values of the game.
“Rugby’s just a great way to open doors and it also is a great way for girls to feel powerful and to know what their bodies are really capable of,” said Ilona.
Ilona’s love of the game is obvious, and so is her love of her hometown.
“Yeah, BHS doesn’t have a rugby team but it doesn’t mean they (BHS students) can’t get into it or go find other teams,” said Ilona. “Even if you’re not athletic, even if you just want to join a club or a team sport go out and try South Burlington’s rugby team. I had so much fun on it I met a ton of people.”
Article originally printed in The Register, December 20, 2018