Karee Helgerson caps college rugby career with third national title
Karee Helgerson played a little bit of everything growing up in Milwaukie and went at every sport the same way -- aggressively.
When she was in the fourth grade, one of her friend's dads came up to her after a basketball game and told her she might want to consider playing rugby.
"It kind of stuck with me," Helgerson said.
Eleven years later, the Quinnipiac University senior is ready to close the books on a decorated college career that ended in December when Helgerson and the Bobcats of Hamden, Connecticut, clinched a third consecutive National Intercollegiate Rugby Association national championship.
"It was definitely not easy," she said of her college rugby experience. "It took a lot of hard work and determination from me and all of my teammates. I had to sacrifice a lot, but it also was something that was so rewarding.
"Sometimes, it still seems so surreal. I don't really always realize the impact that our program has had and how big it really is, but it's definitely an accomplishment that I'm extremely proud of."
Helgerson, a 2014 graduate of Putnam High School, played four years of high school rugby with the North Clackamas Lady Centaurs, which included players from Clackamas, Milwaukie and Putnam.
She also played on the Rugby Oregon All-Stars summer team for coach Greg Tracy, who helped arrange a meeting between Helgerson and Quinnipiac assistant coach Michelle Reed during a rugby camp at Delta Park in the spring of 2014.
"I had just broken my nose, so I wasn't actually playing at the camp," Helgerson said. "I sat on the sideline and told Coach Reed about the other girls, and we kind of hit it off.
"She took my information at the end of the camp and within two weeks, I was being considered as a recruit for the fall of 2014 season."
Helgerson had previously made an oral commitment to play college rugby at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada because most of the scholarship opportunities that were available at the time were mostly north of the border.
In the U.S., most NCAA Division I schools with women's rugby programs offered it as a club sport. But there were a few schools that sponsored rugby programs with full NCAA status, and Quinnipiac was one of them.
Helgerson flew to Connecticut for an official visit, which coincided with Quinnipiac's 2013-14 end-of-the-season banquet, during which the Bobcats paid tribute to their graduating seniors and handed out team awards.
Before the trip was over, the Bobcats not only offered Helgerson an athletic scholarship, but the university also offered her an academic grant, which was enough to convince her to say, "Yes."
She redshirted as a freshman and then moved into Quinnipiac's starting lineup in her second season as a prop -- one of the two forwards that "prop up" the hooker to form the front row in each scrum, pushing against the opposition's props in the battle to win possession of the ball.
Basically, Helgerson played what would be the equivalent of an offensive guard in 11-man football.
"We had a pretty small roster of 22 to 25 girls every year that I was there," Helgerson said. "Fifteen players are on the field at one time and I started the majority of the game.
"There were times when whether it was a strategic thing to save energy for the next game against a tougher opponent or if I had an injury, there were times I didn't start. But for the majority of the three years I played, I was a starter."
Over the past three seasons, Quinnipiac posted a 32-5 record, including a 24-16 win over Army in the 2015 NIRA championship final, a 46-24 win over Central Washington in the 2016 title game, and a 29-20 victory over Dartmouth in last season's championship final.
Off all the games Helgerson played, she said the one that stands out for her was the 2016 final against Central Washington.
"We had lost to Central Washington during the regular season, and we were playing them for the second time in the finals," she said. "We had yet to win against Central Washington during the years I was in the program, and the program as a whole had never beaten Central Washington, to that national championship was huge for us.
"We knew we had it in us and with about 20 minutes left in the second half, we scored and took the lead and all of us on the field were like, 'OK, we're done letting Central Washington control this. This is our game. We're going to win this.'
"We had won one national championship and that was a great experience, but winning a second time against a team that we hadn't yet won against in the program's history … it was just one of the greatest feelings ever."
In the 2017 title game, No. 2 Quinnipiac had home-field advantage at top-ranked Dartmouth, making its first appearance at the NIRA finals in program history.
Dartmouth jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but the Bobcats rallied behind a pair of Mikah Maples tries and another by Ilona Maher to take a 17-15 lead into halftime. Two more tries and a conversion in the first 20 minutes of the second half pushed the lead to 29-15 and helped put the game out of reach.
"I think this is something that has been on our minds all year," Bobcats coach Becky Carlson told the Quinnipiac Chronicle. "We tried to push it away a little bit. The words 'three-peat' kept popping up in everybody's language and we kept just having to say 'game by game.' That wasn't an easy thing to do.
"There wasn't a moment when I didn't feel like we weren't going to win, but we really had to glue some stuff together."
Winning the NIRA national championship is not the same thing as winning an NCAA national title, but it's close.
The NCAA recognizes women's rugby as an "emerging sport," which means there aren't enough schools with fully-funded varsity programs to qualify women's rugby for NCAA championship status.
To qualify, there would need to be 40 schools with varsity programs. And while there are hundreds of schools that offer women's rugby as a club sport, the NIRA recognizes 17 schools with NCAA-sponsored programs, and there are another four schools expected to add varsity programs next fall.
Growing the sport
The NIRA is on a mission to see women's rugby gain full NCAA championship status by the fall of 2020, and Helgerson and the rest of the Bobcats see themselves as trailblazers for that movement.
"We're the starting point," Helgerson said. "Every collegiate sport, whether it was basketball or soccer or baseball had a starting point when they were 'emerging sports' and those players were the one who paved the way for the people who are playing the sport today.
"We're those players for rugby, And 10 years or 20 years down the line, young girls who want to play at a level that is competitive and at a Division I varsity level will have that opportunity because we were willing to take a chance and grow the sport."
Helgerson is encouraged by the additions she has seen during her college career but said it may take a school such as Penn State, a national club powerhouse, to join the NCAA-sanctioned ranks to help push the sport to the next level.
"If Penn State were to move to a varsity level, a lot of teams would follow after them," Helgerson said. "The problem that we find with that is a lot of the heavily-rooted club teams don't adhere to NCAA rules. By changing, they would lose a lot of the qualities that are unique to club programs, which a lot of those programs don't want to let go of. That's where we have the hardest time getting more teams to grow the sport."
Because Helgerson was a redshirt as a freshman, she has one year of eligibility remaining but said the 2017 season was her last.
Carlson appreciates all that Helgerson did for the Bobcats during her time with the program.
"Karee is one of the student-athletes I will use as an example for years to come," Carlson said. "If there was ever an example of an athlete that grew during her time at QU in college athletics, she would be it. Her desire to develop as a player and a person was a long road with huge payoffs in not just her stats and huge hits on the field but more importantly, her belief in herself. "
Helgerson is on course to graduate on May 19 with a degree in criminal justice and is ready to finish college and move on to whatever is next.
"I'm looking into the park services and potentially doing something in that field," she said. "I've also been looking into probation and parole and doing something on the probation side of law enforcement.
"I'm open to anything. I just really love studying criminology and getting to all aspects of it. So, I'm not super-picky about what I end up doing. I'm just excited to go into the workforce and see what's out there."