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Trinity High grad Emma Wright a powerful presence in college rugby

Mar. 29—EVERYONE knows when Roger Williams University arrives for a women's rugby tournament.

That's usually because they hear Emma Wright shouting words of encouragement and firing up her teammates.

Wright had never played rugby when she arrived on the Bristol, Rhode Island, campus as a freshman. The Manchester resident joined the team that year after being recruited by a player via social media.

Now a senior, Wright has developed into a leader and All-American for the two-time defending 7s national champion Hawks.

"She's truly one of the heart and souls of our team," Roger Williams sophomore and fellow Manchester resident Danyela Poore said of Wright.

Wright, who played soccer, basketball and lacrosse at Trinity High School, plays eight-man for the Hawks during the 15s season in the fall and prop for 7s season in the spring. (The numbers 15 and 7 refer to the number of players per side.)

The eight-man in 15s rugby, one of the most important positions, is responsible for making tackles, carrying the ball through the defensive line and supporting the backs.

A prop in 7s rugby lines up in the front row of the scrum as a forward. Wright said her responsibility at prop is to be a battering ram by running hard at the line to break through and support her teammates in the scrum.

While she has always had the power needed for her positions, Wright said improving her technique has helped Roger Williams win more scrums.

"I think that over the years I've definitely gotten a higher IQ and looked into more of my form rather than just pushing with all my might and it's helped me a lot," Wright said. "We won a lot of scrums so far this (spring) season. We won a lot in the fall and I think that a lot of bringing that IQ to the team and talking to the team and we do a lot of practice with the scrums and I think I've definitely improved in that — with my form — and I think it's been huge and beneficial for me."

Wright served as a captain for the Hawks this past fall 15s season, when the team went 6-2 and reached the national playoffs before falling to Coast Guard, 43-25. Wright was a National Collegiate Rugby (NCR) Division II All-American selection that season.

Roger Williams opened this spring 7s season with a 3-0 mark before exhibition losses to Division I Brown, last year's NCR Premier Division national champion, and to the Beantown Rugby Club, which plays in the Women's Premier League.

During college offseasons, Wright has played and trained with the Under-23 New England Independents team and will again this summer. The Independents are the official senior development squad for the New England Free Jacks Major League Rugby team.

Roger Williams head coach Caitlin Mallahan, a Laconia native, said Wright has improved as a player through her time with the Independents, studying the sport and her dedication in the gym.

"She goes out of her way to learn the game and find new experiences," Mallahan said. "Through those experiences, she has learned the game better than I could ever teach her and she's built her confidence. Knowing the laws of the game better than most players helps you to become a great player and I know she goes to the gym probably every day — works on her speed and her fitness and her strength.

"Seeing somebody who already was a confident person but now she has the skills to back it up, it's kind of cool."

Mallahan said Wright shares new practice drills with Mallahan when she returns from playing with the Independents.

Poore, a Manchester Central graduate, plays the hooker position in the fall and either prop or hooker in the spring, both of which line up in the scrum as a forward.

Hookers are responsible for helping their team secure possession.

When Poore joined the Hawks, Wright took the time to answer her questions about the game and explained how she could become a better player.

"She would always have something kind to say about how I could improve and really helped that way," Poore said. "She always said, 'Play with confidence so when you hit them, they won't be able to hit you back because they'll be scared.'"

Women's rugby is not a varsity sport at Roger Williams, so the team recruits like any other club — through on-campus events, social media and other grassroots efforts.

Wright has been part of recruiting efforts since she joined the team. Most women get to college with little exposure to rugby, Wright said, so she looks for athletic women who show dedication.

Wright said she recruited three or four current players on the team, including Poore.

"Most people that I've recruited, I get from the gym," Wright said. "If I go to the gym at like 7 a.m. and I see a girl there running on a treadmill or lifting, I'm like, 'She's motivated. She's got it.' That's what we look for. For me, I look for someone who looks athletic but also like she's willing to put in the time and willing to commit to our team."

Poore said her older sister, Mariana, played soccer with Wright at Central before Wright transferred to Trinity. Mariana reached out to Wright about her sister joining the team and Wright then shared the team's Instagram page with Poore.

Poore, who played ice hockey at Central, was intrigued by the team's national championships and thought it would be a good way to make friends. She went to the team's first meeting last year and has been part of the program ever since.

"Obviously coming into college, I didn't really think about playing a sport but she really convinced me," Poore said of Wright.

When Wright isn't at a tournament, Mallahan said, the Hawks are a lot quieter as a group.

During the NCR 7s National Championship game last spring, Mallahan said, Wright helped spark the Hawks' energy despite the fact the game was played in heavy rain in Washington, D.C.

Roger Williams won the final, 10-5, over Colorado School of Mines by scoring on the game's last play.

"She's not shy and not afraid to be herself," Mallahan said, "so I think that other people feed off that. It helps them be loose and have fun, too."

Wright's advice to her younger teammates, passed along from former captains, is simple: You'll get out of the program what you put in.

"The college experience is so much different than I thought it would be in the best way possible," Wright said. "I never expected to be part of a team or have this community and find a sport that I love more than any sport I ever played growing up ... It's the best decision I've ever made."

ahall@unionleader.com