Frisco’s Natalie Gray helps Lindenwood University win college rugby national championship
May 17, 2018
Twelve months after she graduated from Summit High School, Frisco's Natalie Gray was on the pitch at Cal State Fullerton University on May 5 when the whistle sounded, signifying a rugby national championship.
"It was kind of crazy," Gray said. "It felt like — I almost didn't know how to feel, because I've never really won a national championship like that before. But it was really exciting to see different teammates get really emotional. It's like you feed off of their happiness and excitement."
What a 12 months it was for the former Summit Black girls rugby star.
As a freshman at Lindenwood University in St. Louis, Missouri this year, the 19-year-old Gray quickly grew to play a vital role for the Lions' Rugby-15s "A" side — the program's top team.
With early injuries last fall to veteran teammates who also play her "Lock" position, Gray faced a sudden welcome-to-college transition on the pitch.
But thanks to her experience with the Summit Blacks and with USA Rugby's U-18 and U-20 national teams, Gray came along quickly.
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She started several games for the Lions through both their fall and spring seasons. That was before she played the effective role of closer at her Lock position during this spring's Division 1-Elite National Championship Tournament. It was cemented with that May 5, 36-9 victory over rival Life University in the national championship game.
In Rugby-15s, the Lock is a position Gray played during her early years at Summit High. It requires a typically taller player to use their power in the second row of a rugby scrum to help win possession. And the Lock is also the position during rugby "line-outs" — essentially out-of-bounds throw-ins — where a player like the 5-foot-11 Gray jumps and is lifted by teammates into the air to retrieve a loose ball.
Considering the tough-minded nature of her position, Gray reflected on this season as one of necessary growth.
"I think I've become more aggressive as a player, and more physical," Gray said.
When watching his daughter's championship game against Life University, Gray's father, Martin, felt her performance was validation that she had grown and learned from her early college playing experiences. Martin Gray — himself a former youth rugby player in the rugby-obsessed nation of New Zealand — felt his daughter learned enough to play with full confidence at the highest level.
"Her positional play, her tackling techniques, her aggressiveness, her strength — that's what happens when you go to an older team," Martin Gray said. "I saw her doing things tackling and her quickness and movement I hadn't seen before. Those were the things she couldn't do last year but is doing now, so the growth through the college year has been significant."
"I think it was my favorite moment (of the season)," Natalie Gray added about the national championship game. "I think I felt like everything came together that last game because I felt more confident. I felt like I could do things better than I had even just the day before. Having all of that come together, it was just like a light switched on."
Playing at Lindenwood also provided Gray the opportunity to reconnect with former teammates and friends from Summit and the rest of the state while also learning from a bevy of players from abroad.
When she arrived at Lindenwood last summer, Gray joined veteran teammates Taylor Bohlender, Morgan Courtney and Paulina Las, who all played at Summit High School.
Gray also reconnected with some of her top friendly-rivals from her high school rugby days, including her eventual freshman roommate, Anne Rolf. Rolf, from Cleveland, Ohio, was on the high school team — Ohio's Saint Joseph's Academy — that defeated Summit Black two years ago in the U.S. high school rugby-15s national championship game.
"We played at a few other camps together," Gray said. "and we actually became really good friends. Having the same schedule in college is nice and we can talk to each other about different things we relate to."
At Lindenwood, Natalie Gray also learned elite rugby's in-and-outs from six teammates from her dad's native country of New Zealand as well as others from Venezuela, Spain, Ireland, Scotland, England and Australia.
And it's over in New Zealand where Gray may spend some of her future time as both a player and professional — she is a sport management major.
Though she's visited her father's home country five times in her life, Gray hasn't been back since she took up rugby five years ago. That's when her family relocated to Frisco from Maine.
But just in the past few months Gray has formed relationships with such major players in the rugby world as the famed New Zealand All Black's manager Darren Shand. She interviewed Shand for a university project, and hopes to maybe intern or work for the intercontinental Super Rugby professional men's rugby union football league — the top league in the world — in the future.
As for advice for younger Summit Blacks girls rugby players, she has some more wisdom to share after her whirlwind national championship freshman year.
"If you really want it, stick with it," she said. "If you put your head down and work for it, it'll get there, and you'll improve and keep reflecting on everything."
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