By Thomas Becker
Spend just a few minutes with the women's rugby team and you'll understand why there's plenty of optimism surrounding them.
Their youthful energy is infectious and their willingness to learn is unmatched. They're like sponges, gathered around head coach John LaBoyne and his assistant James Voye, absorbing every nugget of wisdom that could make the difference between winning a game-altering scrum or losing it.
With 10 sophomores and 15 rookies occupying more than two-thirds of the roster, they're undeniably young, but they don't look the part. Look no further than rookie Brinten Comeau, who's already become a leader in the clubhouse. Since training camp, Comeau came in with a veteran attitude, with her notebook in hand, studying and documenting the game she loves. Since then, several of her teammates have taken the same approach.
"She's the real deal and we're excited to have her on our side," LaBoyne said. "She's already making plans for winter training and it's rubbing off on other players."
LaBoyne is in the second year of a rebuild and has only just begun to put his stamp on the team he wants to build, which includes sophomore standouts Sophie Carragher, Frances MacWilliam and Elizabeth McQuaid and rookies Comeau and Tessa Hood, who are poised to become the new faces of UPEI rugby. With only seven players in their third year and above – including seniors Niki Triantafillou, Brodie Cassata and Lauren Sheidow – the youngsters will be leaned on heavily to lead them back to contention in the years to come.
Triantafillou has been with the Panthers for the last five years and has witnessed the team return to relevancy under LaBoyne. And while she'll be hard pressed seeing game action in her final year, due to a meniscus tear she suffered Aug. 30, she's gained a new outlook from the sidelines, watching this new version of Panther rugby evolve into brand fans should be excited for.
"Watching the young players from their first year to where they are now has been amazing," Triantafillou said. "We're utilizing everyone on the field. Before we would focus on one or two key players and have everything revolve around them. Now we're doing it together and growing as a team."
Losing key contributors in all-stars Alysha Corrigan and Amy Hickey certainly hurts, but LaBoyne is confident his team will adapt quickly and maybe even surprise a few people.
"We're a more balanced team. Last year we relied too much on Alysha and a few others," LaBoyne said. "This year, we have a wider attack front where more people are capable of scoring on a regular basis."
However, simply adding capable bodies to replenish the roster isn't good enough anymore and LaBoyne and his staff, which also includes newcomers Leigh Read and Emily Keen, realize that. Panther rugby is no longer considered just a three-month sport, but rather a year-long regimen to better prepare for the AUS season, in hopes of taking down perennial powerhouse St. FX and Acadia – whose recruitment resources far exceed that of UPEI's.
The Panthers, rather, take pride in their homegrown Maritime talent and creating stars out of them – like they did with Corrigan, Hickey and now Triantafillou. Now they have to ramp up their effort year-round in hopes of developing more all-star talent at a quicker rate. Only then will they be able to contend with the likes of St. FX and Acadia.
LaBoyne credits Voye for spearheading the team's development in recent years. During the summer, he coaches several Panthers on the Charlottetown Rugby Football Club (CRFC) of the Nova Scotia Rugby tier A senior women's league and led them to back-to-back championships in 2017 and 2018. If his championship pedigree wasn't enough already, he also provides training opportunities in the winter.
"We're slowly changing the culture here by insisting they play in the summer, by providing winter fitness training, and finding time in the gym for skills development," LaBoyne said.
The combination of LaBoyne's experience and Voye's innovation has created a perfect environment for their young corps to mature, and it's a noticeable difference from just three years ago.
"We needed that new energy to spark the rugby program," Triantafillou said. "We're playing a more strategic game and now we have all these tools to be successful."
And although there's a challenge that lies ahead, the Panthers refuse to shy away from their rivals.
"They're aware of the realities of the league, but it doesn't stop their enthusiasm," LaBoyne said. "I call it the Island mentality. I don't care what you throw in front of me, I'm going to run at it anyway. "
Tickets are on sale now. Home opener is Saturday, Sept. 15 at 2 p.m.