‘Lo’ and Behold

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Ryan Chichester

It is a beautiful sunny afternoon on Quinnipiac campus, and junior transfer Ilona Maher, or “Lo” as her teammates call her, is in full rugby uniform, making her way out of the Recreation Center.

There is no game to be played here today, but there is still a sense of joy in Maher’s movements, despite being on the field just to take photos. Any type of rugby-related activity seems to give her a sense of freedom and purpose. As she poses and goes through the motions of her carries, stiff-arms, and runs towards the camera, it is not hard to tell how much she loves this sport.

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It is this love that led to a decision to choose rugby above the rest of the sports Maher excelled at while in high school in her home state of Vermont.

She lettered in field hockey, basketball and softball. However, it was rugby that had the tightest grip on Maher, who embraces the intense physicality and competition that the sport provides.

“I wanted the faster-paced, intense game,” Maher said. “I like being able to tackle and run and play a full contact sport because there aren’t many out there for girls to play.”

Maher didn’t start playing organized rugby until her senior year of high school when she joined a club team in Burlington, Vermont. While still learning the finer points of the game, she was selected to the Stars and Stripes assembly in Colorado, which consists of the top 50 high school players in the country, and eventually selected to the All-American team for the 2015 season. Maher was considered among the elite after one year of playing rugby and wasted no time making herself known in her freshman season at Norwich University, recording five tries in just her second collegiate game.

As she distinguished herself among the best in the country at the collegiate level, something was missing for Maher. She helped the team win the ACRA 7’s and 15’s National Championships, but she still wanted something better.

“I just didn’t like the environment at Norwich,” Maher said. “But I am a homebody and Norwich was so close to home, and I like to be able to see my parents and my sisters as much as possible.”

Maher’s father, a long-time rugby referee and coach, helped turn her on to the sport. The two found a bond through rugby, making it difficult for her to leave her home town. Her supportive parents, who were the reason she wanted to stay, were the ones who helped her take the leap of faith to Quinnipiac.

“My parents told me to just do it and to give it a try,” she said.

With the support of her parents behind her, Maher contacted Quinnipiac and scheduled a visit. After a visit to the school and meeting her future teammates, she was sold.

“Even on my tour, it felt like I was part of the team. I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of,” she said.

Maher left the comfort of her home and found a new one as a nursing major at Quinnipiac. Her teammates took on the role of her second family. The bond became so strong that playing with anybody else just wasn’t the same, even if it was with the best players in the country as a part of the collegiate All-American team, which Maher was a part of last season.

“It was great to be chosen, but I don’t think it was as cool as going out and playing with my Quinnipiac teammates,” she said. “It was a great experience to play with the best players in the country, but I think I would trade that in just to keep playing with my Quinnipiac girls.”

Maher has emerged as an anchor for the team, drawing heavy attention from opponents on the field, which has opened up plenty of space for her teammates to thrive. In fact, Maher holds a share of the program record for most assists in a single game, recording six helpers during last year’s regular season finale against West Chester.

She says she embraces the role of creating chances for her teammates. Meanwhile, her teammates embrace the opportunity to simply watch Maher take over a game.

“It’s amazing just to watch [Maher] plow through six defenders with them hanging on to her,” junior Jessica Maricic said. “You want to run and help, but at the same time you can’t help but watch because she’s so amazing.”

“My favorite moments on the field are when I get to give those assists to my teammates and they get to score for that try,” says Maher.

The desire to help is returned to Maher by her coaches and teammates, especially during last season when the Bobcats were gearing up to face Norwich, Maher’s former team.

She confessed that she was feeling the pressure, and her thoughts were racing on the bus ride to Vermont, where her former teammates were waiting to greet her and hand her a loss as a late parting gift. Her new coaches and teammates sensed the anxiety and came to her aid.

“I was shaking on the bus,” Maher said. “My coach came up to me and reminded me that I was with Norwich for such a short time, and I can’t let it affect me and to find the strength and motivation to play through it. I think it really helped me.”

Head coach Becky Carlson’s words must have helped a lot.

Maher went out and delivered two late tries in the game to put away Norwich, and returned to her new home after a 48-19 thrashing of her former team. Carlson recalls writing her star player a note before the game, which must have resonated with Maher.

“I just wanted her to realize that she made her decisions, and she deserved to be as comfortable and happy with her decisions as she could possibly be,” said Carlson. “It was her time to show what she had been working for.”

Maher and the Bobcats would see Norwich again in the NCVWRA semifinals. By then, Maher saw it as just another game, and would record seven solo tackles in the victory.

Days later, Maher and the Bobcats defeated Army on their way to winning the NCVWRA Championship, the first national championship in school history.

“We knew what we wanted to do and we knew we were going to accomplish it,” Maher says about last season’s title run. “It was a completely amazing feeling to know that your hard work pays off.”

This season, the All-American and national champion can add the title of captain to her long list of accomplishments. It is her first time as a captain, and it is a role she takes very seriously. Given the results she has produced, it seems her teammates are in good hands.

“Her work ethic is magnetic”, Carlson says about Maher’s attributes as team captain. “She’s the type of player that a lot of people look to as an example of what they want to achieve. Not just physically, but also in terms of being a good teammate and leading by example.”

“Obviously she’s an amazing player, but she’s also so kind and caring of everyone else on the team,” Maricich adds. “She just wants the best out of everyone. She doesn’t want to be better than everyone; she wants everyone to be amazing.”

Led by Maher’s team-first approach, the Bobcats have won their first three games of the season (most recently a 64-3 crushing of Norwich) and have been ranked as high as No. 2 in the country in early season polls. The goal is to repeat last season’s success.

Maher named “Princess Diaries 2” as a favorite movie in an interview over the summer, so she would appear to be a fan of sequels.

What would a National Championship sequel mean to her?

“It would be amazing. To have it go down in the books that it was Quinnipiac who won the first two National Championships and stayed strong and didn’t falter. We haven’t stopped working because we won,” she said. “We’re back and playing like we haven’t won a National Championship, because we want to win another one.”