Sports

Images: All provided by Stephanie Crawley.

Head coach aims to make players not only better athletes, but better people   

Over the last six years, the University of Ottawa men’s rugby team has gone from an exhibition club to a top-tier team in the Réseau du Sport Étudiant du Québec (RSEQ). The backbone of their success? Long-time head coach Stephanie Crawley. 

Since fully committing to the program in 2015, Crawley has turned the team on its head — but it’s not her first time doing this. As a multisport athlete coming into her first year at Carleton University in 1994, Crawley wished to continue playing rugby, but with no female team that seemed impossible. 

That is until the then 18-year-old took matters into her own hands, and posted flyers around campus looking for other female players to form a team. Around 30 responded, and Crawley acted as player-coach for every match, not only for the first year but for the first six years of the program. The Ravens eventually went from an exhibition team to a competitive club with “up and coming potential” and currently compete in RSEQ at a varsity level.  

Her role and responsibilities as player-coach had a major influence on the way she now leads the grey and garnet, teaching her about teamwork, management skills and most importantly, the determination needed to make visions come true.

“That experience taught me to believe that there are no limits.  When I first started [at Carleton], the general feeling was it’s not possible to have a team,” said Crawley. “After that, it was impossible to be acknowledged by the athletics, [it] wouldn’t be possible to join a league, it wouldn’t be possible to do all those things. And then we just went ahead and did those things with hard work and commitment and competence.”

After graduation, Crawley took a break from rugby and started a full-time job, bought a house and started a family. Enrolling her two children, Hannah and William, in touch rugby brought her back to the game and soon enough, she was back on the sidelines with Gatineau’s Gladiateurs RFC.

Her skills didn’t go unnoticed and eventually caught the eye of former U of O men’s rugby head coach Stuart Robinson. Eventually, a temporary spot opened up at the university and Crawley slid right in — but not without hesitation.

“I had walked away from the sport to have kids, be in a relationship, that’s something women have to do, you can’t do everything,” said Crawley. 

“I was pretty tentative about returning to the sport, especially at that level. I hadn’t coached men before, but the coach who needed me was pretty pushy and persuasive. So I said, ‘Look, I’ll go, but I’m not sure how it’s going to go.’ ”

Crawley did not regret her decision and was surprised, yet encouraged, by the response of the athletes. 

“I went to my first few practices, and they were early morning practices [at] seven in the morning … and the athletes were amazing. They were super welcoming, stoked, just instantly there was some good chemistry.”

Seeing the team’s potential she stuck around, and like at Carleton, her vision for the program quickly turned to action. After speaking with the U of O’s Sports Services, Crawley took on more responsibility with the Gee-Gees and asked more of the players and the administration to push them forward. 

“[I said] ‘Look, you need to be in a league, not exhibition games. Attitudes around training and training time [also] need to be taken seriously. If I’m going to give it 100 per cent of my time, you need to give 100 per cent of your time’ and just sort of change the culture.”

At the time, the Gee-Gees usually played the same second-tier university teams in exhibition games every year but not without a multitude of unpredictabilities.

“Every [exhibition] game would be sort of a little bit unstable, because you’d be like, ‘Well is the ref gonna show up?’ or ‘is the other team gonna show up?’ … and I was like, ‘I don’t want to be part of that, this is ridiculous, just set a schedule with these teams and get done.’ ” 

But Crawley believed that there was potential for more, and she didn’t shy away from asking other programs to step up either. In 2016, she created the Scholars Rugby League. 

“When I decided to stay on, I wrote all of those schools and I said, ‘Look, I get that you’re a varsity team and these are just development games, but for the sake of development, for our sanity, let’s just create a little league of our own [Scholars Rugby]. We’ll call it a development league and OttawaU will do the administration on it so you guys don’t have to. Let’s just sit down and hash [it] out.’ ”

“And, again, it’s one of those things from what I was saying at Carleton. Everybody was like, ‘Yeah, that’s not possible to do.’ But within a day, I had nine teams wanting to be in this league.”

The new league quickly proved a success. The well structured, more dedicated Gee-Gees, who would have normally been “decimated” by their opponents were winning — and by a lot, holding an undefeated record for two seasons. One of her most cherished memories is seeing her athletes celebrate their achievements after beating Queen’s University for the first time. 

“A number of the athletes, even the ones who weren’t convinced that doing all the committing and having the structure in place and being a little more professional about things, were crying.”

“They were so proud of themselves and proud of what they had accomplished and, they worked for it, they got there, and they realized that they could do it. Like, this wasn’t just a bunch of bogus, this lady knew what she was doing, created a league, made us work for it, got us here and then we beat this team we’ve never beaten before.”

“I think watching the reaction of five or six of those athletes,, they were so moved to tears … and then they were bought in. And I think that was the moment where I was like, ‘Okay, this is where I’m needed. This is where I need to be because I can make the best difference here.” 

But even with a seamless record, Crawley had bigger ambitions. When the U of O introduced competitive varsity clubs, the men’s rugby team applied, was accepted, and immediately started competing in RSEQ where they compete to this day. 

In only three years, the Gee-Gees had gone from playing exhibition games to competing in a fully-funded and developed league. In their first season (2018), the Gee-Gees took advantage of the stronger competition to push themselves, finishing fifth out of seven. With a season in RSEQ under their belt, they finished third in 2019 missing out on nationals “by a couple of tries.” Crawley was named RSEQ Coach of the Year

Looking at the timeline of the program, the development skyrocketed in a short period of time. But it’s important to know that success on the pitch isn’t the only focus for Crawley. Her coaching mantra stretches into influencing her athletes’ lives outside of rugby.

Besides learning plays, orchestrating training sessions and being the commanding voice in the room, she finds priceless value in making her student-athletes better people. She enrolled her squad in leadership workshops, attended Black Lives Matter protests as a squad and actively pushes the players to better themselves. During the pandemic, she’s focused on making sure her squad has the “human basics” such as mental health support, financial stability and are geared towards academic success.

“I feel it’s very important that if I’m going to spend four or five years with an athlete, I want them to leave with skills outside of rugby as well. I don’t want them just to leave as a better rugby player, a better athlete, I want them to leave as a better person.”

And her players reap the benefits. James Flemming is one member of the men’s rugby team who has been with the team for five years. As a veteran he has first-hand experience of the importance of Crawley’s influence off the pitch. 

“It’s been a cool ride, because, I mean, for me, I’ve seen both sides of the coin,” said Flemming.

“Having Steph there really helped because she was the executive person of it all, doing all the work behind the scenes … it wasn’t just spitballing ideas, we actually had somebody who would put pen to paper and get action going.” 

“I’ve been on a lot of teams, nationally, provincially, club teams and university teams, I’d say among all the coaches I ever had, there’s probably never been a coach that cares about their players as much as Steph.”

“The biggest thing I would get from Steph, I wouldn’t even say growth as a player — I’d say it’s growth as a person. She’s really helped me mold into a man rather than a boy.”

While Crawley has been a major piece in the program’s development, she humbly makes sure to not take all the credit, thanking everyone involved at Varsity Athletics, Gee-Gees alumni and the general rugby community for being influential in making it what it is today.

Besides the wins and the awards, her takeaway from her time as head coach remains the same: always bring the best out of the sport and out of the athletes.  

“I hope that as women, and men, see me in coaching, in this leadership role, that they will feel more confident to step in and help even if it’s not a coaching level.”

”Rugby needs so much leadership and so much help right now. Our sport needs more leaders and administrators … so if anybody were to read this, I would hope that they would read it and be like, ‘Yeah, I’ll reach out to my local club and lend a hand because we need it.’ ”

Thanks to her decision to overcome her hesitation and take the reins, the Gee-Gee men’s rugby program finds itself set up for years of future success.