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Courtesy BYU women's rugby
BYU No. 8 Sia Skipps battles for more territory.
When Coach told us that we would finally be recognized and that we'd get to play on South Field, my heart just leaped. —BYU senior and captain Jessie Beck

On Thursday, BYU women's rugby team took an 800-mile bus ride to Moraga, California.

Not too long ago, BYU's own South Field seemed even further away.

"As freshmen, we always dreamed of getting to play on South Field, even just once," senior and team captain Jordan Gray said.

It was only a dream because women's rugby wasn't an official extramural sport at BYU since its inception in 2000. That means players were students participating in a club, but they weren't funded by the school and couldn't use BYU's facilities or its logo.

That changed last October, when the school decided to officially recognize the team.

"I knew that it was in the making, but things can take a long time," senior and captain Jessie Beck said. "When Coach told us that we would finally be recognized and that we'd get to play on South Field, my heart just leaped."

The change in status has helped the team in a lot of practical ways.

"In previous years, we always had to worry about things like fundraising and how we would going to practice in the winter with snow on the ground," Gray said. "It's been nice this year to use the facilities and practice without worrying about outside factors."

It's also helped in mental and emotional ways.

"It's been good for our morale," Beck said. "It was tough to represent our school and not get a lot back in terms of recognition or support. We're just really grateful now for the support we're getting."

Tom Waqa, who has been the team's head coach since 2004, had waited much longer for BYU's decision than any of his players.

"It was always a goal since the foundation of this club," he said. "We've been in dialogues for a decade, and it feels good to finally be able to wear the 'Y' on our chests."

Now, Waqa and his team — officially the BYU Cougars — are preparing for their national championship against Penn State on Saturday. While BYU was able to participate in tournaments without being established as an extramural sport, this is the team's first trip to the Division I Elite final.

"We've had a really good run with the quarterfinal against Stanford and the semifinal against Central Washington," Waqa said. "That was one of the best performances I've seen from this team in a long time. We just want to pick up from there."

Regardless of the outcome, Waqa recognizes that the Cougars have come a long way.

"No matter what, it's a special moment and a milestone for our program," he said.

Saturday's game will take place at Saint Mary's College at 2 p.m. MDT.