PROVO — They would have done it anyway. But it was easier for the BYU women's rugby team to walk away from a shot at a national championship knowing so many people were on their side.
In Sanford, Fla., this past weekend, the club team forfeited its second-round game against Penn State in the USA Rugby collegiate tournament because the organization mistakenly scheduled it to play on Sunday if it won Saturday. The 35 women — all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and BYU students — were crushed when they found out about the scheduling mishap the Monday before the competition. To play would mean breaking their Sabbath, though, and that simply wasn't an option.
Within days, they were contacted by the New York Times to discuss their decision. Many of the women were focused on their dashed personal dreams. The New York Times' interest caused them to realize that perhaps their sacrifice mattered to more people than just them.
Then the e-mails started coming in, some from fellow Mormons, some from Baptist ministers, and one particularly poignant message from senior Jewish tennis player Bob Litwin, who in 2004 refused to play in his world championship finals match for athletes 55 and older because it took place on Yom Kippur. The following year, he won the world championship.
"I read those e-mails and I could see the change in perspective," the team's coach, Tom Waqa said. "They just lit up from there."
No. 8 seed BYU handily defeated No. 9 seed Wisconsin-Milwaukee 46-7. That earned the team a spot in the quarterfinals against No. 1 seed Penn State — the team that bumped BYU out of the tournament last year.
The players chose not to play and they take consolation in Litwin's success as they look to the future, hopeful that in years to come, they won't have to choose between their faith and their sport. What's more, the close-knit teammates feel that a win in any season is a win for all.
"If this team wins, anyone who has played for this team wins," said Samantha Wright, club president.
"This year, we'll stand up for this," junior Kara Longhurst Remington said. "Next year, we'll win a national championship."
On Sunday, they attended church, where a few of them were asked to share their testimonies during sacrament meeting. They met with LDS teens during the third hour and had a panel discussion. As the clock ticked closer to 2 p.m., team captain Kirsten Siebach realized that had they opted to play Penn State, they would be warming up for the game at that very moment.
"We would be at the field right now," she told the teenagers. "But we'd rather be here."
Weeks before the tournament, team members were under the impression that the tournament schedule would be changed to accommodate their religious beliefs. Logistics won out, however, and the dates weren't swapped.
Women's rugby is not part of the BYU athletic department, which has a policy against Sunday play, so the team had total autonomy in the decision.
"We really had a chance to take it," senior Rebecca Bunnell said. "We'd been building up for years to take this national championship and we thought this year was the year for our team."
"They were heartbroken," Waqa said.
The week leading up to the game was difficult. The team's previously open-ended postseason now had a predetermined conclusion. The seniors would have one game left, and that was it.
Remington played for the team in 2007, when it first qualified for the championship tournament. That year, the team didn't even bother attending because the first round was a Saturday-Sunday schedule.
Siebach said they probably would have bailed this year, too, had they known early enough. "We would have never have bought plane tickets if we had thought it wouldn't have been on Friday and Saturday," she said.
But after reading e-mails from strangers calling them inspirational, and feeling support from all over the world, the team is glad things played out the way they did.
"At first, I know I was devastated," Siebach said. "But it's also turned into an incredible opportunity. It sheds a good light on the church, that those of us who are Mormon and who claim to be Mormon actually live by what we say."
Said Remington: "It turned into something completely positive and uplifting, and gave us really a renewed sense of what we were doing. … It's way bigger than our team. It's way bigger than a national championship."
BYU senior Haliaka Kauwe said being a recipient of such overwhelming support the world over has brought her as much fulfillment as any rugby match ever could.82 comments on this story
"When you get done playing rugby, you are tired," Kauwe said. "You have sweat; you have bled; you have left it out there. And it's satisfying to be able to walk off the pitch and (know) 'I sacrificed.'
"In this too, there was sacrifice. And it was a sacrifice made together. And so there's the same satisfaction."
Wright, who looks forward to her senior season, said that in a way, they already feel like champions.
"Only national champions end their season with a win," she said. "And we ended our season with a win."