Captain of USA Eagles comes to coach Dartmouth rugby
Stacey Bridges brings crucial forwards knowledge to the Big Green.
As Dartmouth welcomes in a new class of students, the women’s rugby team welcomes Stacey Bridges as its new assistant coach. But unlike eager first-years with months to plan and pack for their arrival, Bridges arrived empty handed, having been offered her position only in August.
“We barely got her in time for preseason,” co-captain Camille Johnson ’19 said. “We were scrambling last minute to make sure everything was approved so that she could be here for preseason. She actually flew in without having packed anything — no clothes.”
Bridges joins head coach Katie Dowty and assistant coach Matthew Cameron, who both began coaching at Dartmouth last year. Bridges brings with her the experience of playing rugby on a national level, as the current captain of the USA Rugby Women’s National Team, and coaching different rugby programs across the country.
She also earned a master’s degree in kinesiology from Texas A&M University, the institution at which she also attended as an undergraduate. When Bridges first set foot on the Texas A&M campus, she didn’t know what rugby was, having been a soccer and softball player previously.
“I started playing rugby at Texas A&M University in 2006 — I had never heard of the sport before,” Bridges said. “At their open house, I ran into the rugby team there. They convinced me to try it out and I was hooked from the first practice.”
Bridges’ rugby career picked up steam from that point. Four months after her first practice, she was asked to play for a select side team for the West U19 team, a regional team for rugby players under 19 years old that competes with other regions in the United States. From there, she caught the eye of a USA U19’s coach and was selected for a U19 tour to England and Wales. Afterwards, Bridges progressed through the different rugby levels, playing for USA A-Side, a developmental side for senior women.
The year 2009 proved to be a big one for Bridges. In 2009, she was recruited into the senior pool and selected for the 2009 Nations Cup, playing Canada, France and England. She has been selected for every tour since 2009 for the U.S. side. In 2010, she was the youngest player for the U.S. at the 2010 World Cup. And in 2016, she was the captain of a U.S. National Team for the Utah Super Series.
While playing for U.S. rugby teams on a national and international level, she served as a coach and helped develop rugby programs across the country. She first started coaching in Minnesota with the University of Minnesota women’s team. Bridges also worked for Minnesota’s youth rugby, teaching rugby to students in grades K-12. And in January of 2016, Bridges moved to D.C. to help in the launching of Scion Rugby Academy, a national development academy that pairs higher-level athletes for competition and development in the national pool. While in D.C., she coached the United States Naval Academy’s women’s rugby team.
For Bridges, teaching rugby has proved beneficial to her rugby career in many ways.
“I feel like you learn a lot more about the game when you have to explain the game to others and coach others — it helps your development as a player,” she said.
Her experience may be why the athletic department trusts in Bridges to execute the changes already made to the team in the first few weeks of her tenure.
In its transition from a club sport to varsity sport, the women’s rugby team lost several of its forwards. Rather than recruit and train rookies in the preseason crunch, Bridges got innovative.
“She has already moved around players that were playing in the back line, for example, and then moving them to the scrum,” co-captain Ashley Zepeda ’18 said. “She took the skills she knew people already had and put them in different places and made it work. She’s just so good at taking what we have and utilizing that to our best advantage.”
However, simply moving around players to different positions isn’t enough to produce a competitive and viable rugby team. Even great coaches, no matter how much they instruct their players, cannot overcome lack of experience, but Bridges seems to be transcending those limitations.
“We have three new girls who are starting at second role [in the scrum] who have never played that position in their life, and are now playing it as well as anyone who has been playing for years,” Zepeda said. “She’s just so good at teaching us.”
While verbal instruction is essential to any coaching style, sometimes words just do not cut it. And in those instances, Bridges is not afraid to jump in and show the women proper positioning and technique.
“That goes leaps and bounds for our team specifically because we do still have a lot of walk-ons,” Zepeda said. “To have a coach that’s willing to get in there and show us technique is very, very important for us as developing players, versus a coach who just talks.”
Leading by example happens off the field with Bridges as much as it does on the field, Zepeda noted.
“She’s at the gym just as much as we are,” Zepeda said. “She’s eating healthy, we’re eating healthy. We just follow her in so many different respects.”
And most importantly, Bridges impact on the new forwards comes from her love of the game and of striving for excellence, Zepeda added.
“Bridges is very much a go-getter,” Zepeda said. “She wants to win, and that’s pretty much her top goal. I think she wants to take us all the way this season and I have no doubt she’ll do that.”
At the end of the day, Bridges’ influence on the girls goes beyond improving their rugby skills, physical fitness or even passion for fitness.
“Having someone who is currently playing rugby and such a leader on the team, she has a certain influence by the way she portrays herself walking around the field and speaking with people,” Johnson said. “She’s very conscious of the influence she has on people, and she can really get the best out of everyone. She’s a great source for me to look to in trying to figure out how to be a leader myself.”