Pathway to the pitch

How Mikah Maples went from a rugby novice to an All-American in three seasons

Jacob Shiffer, Contributing Writer

In the shadow of Sleeping Giant, the Quinnipiac Rugby Field is an impressive sight. When you combine it with the piercing sounds of lawn seeders roaming the grounds, you get the impression the Sleeping Giant is wide awake, roaring as he stands tall above it all. 

It’s a strong image. But it doesn’t come close to the strength senior center Mikah Maples brings when she steps on the field.

“She’s just a workhorse,” Quinnipiac rugby head coach Becky Carlson said. “She was always strong when she came in.”

In her four years on the team, Maples has put together an impressive résumé. She has two national championships under her belt. As a junior, she was named team MVP and earned NIRA All-American honors. Other teams make sure to set time aside to scout her, an impressive feat in a sport with so few teams and such little exposure.

The most impressive part of her résumé may be that her story doesn’t begin with her experience on a club rugby team, or with any rugby experience at all. Her story begins as a three-sport athlete in high school, in a town of 1,831 people.

Kayley Fasoli

The city of Moweaqua is in the center of Illinois. That’s fitting for an athlete who deservedly became the city’s center of attention while in high school. As a volleyball player, she earned All-Area honors. In basketball, her team won a state title. On the track and field team, she earned state medals in both the discus and shot put.

She had the chance to continue her career in track and field and became a member of Quinnipiac’s team her freshman year. But a connection between her high school basketball coach and Carlson crafted a different path for Maples that can only be explained as destiny.

“One of the athletes that graduated several years after me ended up being Mikah’s basketball coach,” Carlson said. “She happened to mention to me, ‘Hey I know you guys love crossover athletes, I got this kid, she plays basketball, she’s got every bit of the work ethic.’ I was like, ‘Don’t tell me anything else. I want to just see her play basketball. I want to see this.’”

Carlson saw an energetic player who passed that energy on to her teammates. She saw a player who told a reporter at halftime of a state championship game that her team wouldn’t lose. She saw a signature celebration that Maples ended up bringing to the Quinnipiac rugby field. Most of all, she saw an athlete who didn’t need rugby, but chose it anyway.

“Mikah could easily have gone and played Division III, Division II basketball,” Carlson said. “She’s that talented. I’m sure she could have played volleyball. There’s many things that Mikah could have done.”

Most collegiate rugby players come from a background in club rugby. There are a few who have no background in the sport, but Carlson thinks there could be more if coaches paid attention. She’s seen the unique mentality of three-sport athletes drive them to success when they try something new, including rugby. Maples was no exception.

“Mikah just looked at this and was like, ‘This is a new challenge for me, and I want to do something different,’” Carlson said, “and I don’t think she’s alone in that.”

The story would be great if it went to say Maples was a rugby natural the moment she stepped onto the pitch. It would also be untrue. Maples struggled at first. The skills that make up a great rugby player take time to develop, even for an athlete like herself.

“I didn’t know how to tackle,” Maples said. “I didn’t know how to pass. I didn’t know all the rules. I couldn’t learn that at home by myself, so I just had to wait until I got here.”

Senior lock Niamh Savage, one of Maples’ best friends on the team, recalls the freshman version of Maples being optimistic and hard-working. She saw someone who knew she could be better but wanted the success to come sooner rather than later.

“I remember how she was extremely frustrated with the whole process,” Savage said. “Because it was really hard to catch up to where everyone else was because they had been playing before and she was the only one that came on that hadn’t played before.”

Savage said her and other freshmen would work with Maples after practice each day to help her with the basics. On the field during practices and games, Maples was surrounded by upperclassmen who had All-American talent. The team fostered an environment where Maples could not just learn the game but also excel at it.

“They helped me a lot,” Maples said. “I wouldn’t have been able to learn so quickly if they weren’t so patient and understanding that I literally had no idea what I was doing.”

Sometimes, that help came through tough love.

Morgan Tencza

“One of our first practices,” Maples said, “we were learning to tackle, and I was in a group with Hailey Wyatt who was an All-American and Karee Helgerson who’s just so strong,” Maples said. “And I just got put on my butt just time after time after time. I just remember laying there and I was like, ‘Why did I choose to do this? This sucks.’ But I’m happy I did.”

Her biggest supporter may have come from back home. Her father played rugby in college at the University of Montana. He taught her the basic rules before she left and spoke with her every day during her freshman year, learning how his daughter progressed in the sport that brought him joy during his college years.

“I think he’s kind of astonished that I stepped into his shoes a little bit because I was supposed to go do track in college,” Maples said. “Rugby was not an option. And then it became one and he was like, ‘Oh, this is so cool. My daughter’s doing exactly what I did.’”

With the help of her father, her coaches and her teammates, Maples turned into one of the best collegiate players in the country, and possibly one of the humblest. She’s become a leader who looks out for her teammates and uplifts them even during the team’s recent struggles.

“On the field definitely she’s a threat,” Savage said. “Off the field, people can go to her and she just kind of provides a positive spirit for everyone.”

That positive spirit is easy to spot. Questions about her accomplishments elicit responses from her that are more about the team instead of herself.

“To see us grow from our freshman to our senior years and see us all improve so much, I love that,” Maples said. “It’s fun to celebrate everybody else’s accomplishments.”

Maples doesn’t just want individual accomplishments for her teammates and herself. She wants to win. Winning two national championships in one’s first two seasons could spoil an athlete and ruin his or her love for the game when the team can’t match that same success. For Maples, there’s no semblance of a spoiled athlete. Just one who looks like she’s having the time of her life.

“Mikah is always playing to win,” Carlson said. “If we were 0-10, she would give you the same interview about how she loves the sport. It’s rare.”

Kayley Fasoli

Carlson knows players like Maples can help the game grow at the collegiate level. Athletes may not have the talent to play their chosen sport at the collegiate level, but that doesn’t mean they can’t find a new path. Maples is a perfect example of what’s possible for a dedicated athlete when he or she tries something new.

“It’s a continued process to bolster rugby onto the NCAA stage,” Carlson said. “And players like Mikah are proof that rugby belongs in the NCAA and can cater to that triple-sport athlete that maybe they want to do something different. They have all the athleticism and all the tools to be able to seamlessly insert themselves into this game.”

Maples didn’t just seamlessly insert herself into the game. She dominated it. She’ll be remembered as a hard worker who started with no experience but became a team leader. She was a triple-sport athlete who became an All-American in a sport she didn’t need. She’ll be the role model for other athletes who want to try a new sport. But they’ll have to learn it took her more than athleticism to be successful.

“You can have a triple-sport athlete and them not have the desire and the drive that Mikah has,” Carlson said. “Aand it wouldn’t end this way. It wouldn’t be like this. But she has it.”