Red Lion High School graduate Morgan McLaughlin recently participated in the Women’s Division II National Rugby Final Four in Stanford, Calif., with
Red Lion High School graduate Morgan McLaughlin recently participated in the Women's Division II National Rugby Final Four in Stanford, Calif., with the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The IUP team finished third. (SUBMITTED)

Morgan McLaughlin recently had a decision to make.

A very difficult decision.

She could celebrate years of hard work in the classroom and attend her college graduation ceremony, or she could try to win a national rugby title.

McLaughlin, after due deliberation, chose the latter course, and even though her Indiana University of Pennsylvania team fell short of winning the Women's Division II National Championship, the 2009 Red Lion High School graduate has no regrets.

"All of the seniors on the team got together and talked about it and we decided we were going to play rugby on the graduation date (Saturday, May 10)," she said. "We walked out onto the field like we were walking out for graduation."

Of the 10 seniors on the IUP team, eight elected to play rugby, while the other two opted for graduation.

The storybook ending, of course, would have had IUP winning the national crown, but that's not the way real life usually works. The Crimson Hawks lost in the national semifinals on May 10 in Stanford, Calif., to Cal State-Northridge, 15-10.

They bounced back the next day, however, to win the third-place match over Florida International, 19-17. In that game, McLaughlin, who plays fullback, scored a try and made the extra kick with about five minutes left to win it for IUP. A try is worth five points and the kick is worth two points.

"Our first match was very close, a very tough loss," the 22-year-old McLaughlin said. "We went on to Sunday to win the bronze, which was a great accomplishment."

IUP made it to the Final Four by finishing 7-0 in the Allegheny Rugby Union, which includes schools such as Slippery Rock, West Virginia, Clarion, Juniata, Grove City, California (Pa.) and Pitt. That got the Hawks to the Sweet 16, where they won two matches to advance to Stanford. It was the first time that McLaughlin and her teammates have advanced that far.

McLaughlin, who played soccer in high school, got hooked on rugby when started at IUP. She and a friend signed up and she quickly became enamored with the sport.

"We wanted to try something different and we loved it," McLaughlin said of the sport, which she described as a mix between soccer and football. "I like how physical it is and how it bonds us all together. My team is my family, it's where I met all my friends at school. It's such a different sport. It's nothing like what I was used to playing. It was a great experience."

Part of that bonding comes from the fact that rugby at IUP is a club sport, not a university sport. That means the IUP rugby team has to raise its own funds to pay its bills. Each team member must pay dues each semester, and the team also holds fund raisers, such as bake sales and car washes.

There's also no paid coach. Instead, the team's elected captains lead practices. McLaughlin has been an IUP captain for each of the past two seasons.

McLaughlin, who is known for her speed, may enjoy the physical aspect of the sport, but it can also take its toll. She suffered a concussion during the Sweet 16. Since the school does not sponsor the sport, she had to return home to seek medical care in the emergency room. But it still couldn't keep her out of the Final Four. She also has some knee problems from her soccer days.

"When I play, I don't even notice it," she said of her knee issues. "I just play through it. It's such an emotional sport. It's hard to explain. It's indescribable. The knees don't bother me on the field, only off the field."

The emotion was evident in McLaughlin's raspy voice after the Final Four.

"I always lose my voice after I play," she said. "But I'm also sick. But I'm emotional on the field."

McLaughlin said her parents were little leery when she took up rugby, but that they quickly warmed up to it.

"My mom was definitely nervous" she said. "But they know how much I love it and they came up to support me at my games and even came to California. In the end, they loved it, too."

Now McLaughlin is about ready to embark on her career after college. She has a nursing degree and hopes to land a job in maternity nursing, once she finishes a clinical stint this summer at Johnstown Hospital.

But she's not done with rugby just yet.

Her performance this season caught the attention of national rugby officials and she's been invited to participate in a camp run by USA Rugby in Virginia from June 5-8. If she performs well there, she could be selected for the women's national team.

"I always wanted to play in a women's league in the future," she said. "It's awesome that I got a chance in this camp. It's definitely something big."

Making the national team would be icing on the cake for McLaughlin.

Rugby is in her blood now. Four years of sweating, laughing and crying with your teammates, who just happen to be your best friends, will do that.

That's why skipping her graduation ceremony turned out to be the right decision for her.

Even if she didn't get to enjoy the storybook national championship ending.

— Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.