Former Summit HS rugby star Brie Barto looks back on a near-perfect career
The Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championships is one of the only stateside rugby tournaments broadcast on national TV. Summit County local Brie Barto and the Penn State Nittany Lions will play in the semifinals against Arizona today. The full schedule:
- 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. on NBC Sports
- 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. on local NBC Sports networks
- 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Comcast Sportsnew
- noon to 2 p.m. on local NBC Sports networks
- 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on NBC Sports
When Brie Barto takes to the pitch tomorrow, she’ll be two wins away from her sixth rugby championship in as many years.
After all, winning is what she does, and she’s damn good at it.
“Day in and day out you’re challenged to be better here,” the 23-year-old Summit native said between games at the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championships, an invite-only tournament in Philadelphia. “There is no level where you peak, because the next day you’ll surpass that. It’s the kind of mentality that carries over from season to season.”
Barto, a former Lady Tigers superstar on the rugby pitch and basketball hardwood, is in her final season with the Penn State women’s rugby club. Her team is considered the best of the best in a strenuous — and increasingly more competitive — sport known for speed, strength and bone-crushing hits.
But the Nittany Lions aren’t just considered the best of the best, like some kind of unofficial rec league bullies. No, Barto’s team has the record to prove it. Since joining in 2009, she’s played hundreds of games between the regular season and post-season tournaments, and yet she’s lost just one, a heartbreaker to Army shortly after she was recruited.
Barto called me minutes after her team’s first win at the tournament, a solid 24-0 rout of Notre Dame. She had just wrapped up with a post-game huddle and was given maybe an hour of downtime, so of course I didn’t want to tear her out of the zone for long. But I wasn’t sure I heard her right. Say that again: Has the Penn State squad really only lost a single game in six years?
“Yeah, I haven’t had a loss since Army,” she said, her tone somewhere between laughter and matter-of-fact determination. “That was really an eye-opening moment for me. I came into a program that was very strong, but that doesn’t mean you’ll always be the best. That really forced me to have the mindset that you have to work, constantly, that you have to be better all the time.”
As the scrum-half for Penn State’s sevens team, Barto is the unofficial team leader, calling and guiding formations from the backfield like the rugby version of a quarterback. She has a love for the game, not to mention an eye for its intricacies, and she’s only gotten better with time, just as she says. But not only is she better — she’s thirsty for the sort of pressure that follows nearly untouchable athletes.
“You’re challenged constantly, not just as an athlete, but as an individual,” Barto said. “You always have that target on your back — everyone wants to beat you — but the entire team plays to be better, plays to be the best. I think that sets us apart from the other teams out there.”
TIGER TO LION
Barto is the latest SHS alum to carry on the proud, intimidating tradition of the Lady Tigers rugby squad. Over the past seven years, the team has gone undefeated in the state championship, most recently beating Fort Collins last November. It’s not a 5A divisional crown, at least not officially, but longtime coach Karl Barth says his squad can hold its own against anyone in the state.
And like Barto, they’re damn good at winning.
“The culture we have works,” Barth said from a nearby field at the Philly tournament, which includes a high school bracket. “They play hard as a team. They support each other and work for each other, doing their part to contribute to the whole. We’re not necessarily a big team, so we spend time honing our skills and working on our speed and learning to just play together.”
And, like his former scrum-half, Barth knows being the best doesn’t always mean you’ll come out on top. The SHS team won its first game of the tournament, beating Florida’s West Shore High School 25-0 despite a shaky start. The team was tossed into a second game just an hour later, and after struggling again to find a groove, the Lady Tigers fell 22-5 to Doylestown High School, the Pennsylvania state champions.
“We made a couple of mistakes early, gave up the score, and then Becca got hurt,” Barth said, referring to one of his current star players, Becca Jane Rosko, the junior who helped propel the Tigers past West Shore. “That sets us back a bit, especially since she did so well in the first game. If you don’t get off to a good start it’s tough to dig out of that hole.”
Still, the team has a small chance to advance, and if they do, Barto will be there to cheer them on. In the past six years, she’s never played in the same tournament as her former team. She gives Barth credit for honing her skills, and when watching players like Rosko or Kyle Armstrong — yet another SHS superstar who lured Barto to Penn State — she immediately sees the influence of her former coach. So does her father, Bob Barto.
“Karl has developed the program over the years, and he likes to bring a mix of girls who are just willing to play,” Barto said. “Winning breeds success which breeds enthusiasm which breeds participation. It’s very similar to Penn State that way.”
Also like Penn State, women’s rugby at SHS isn’t a varsity sport. (There’s no men’s team, period.) It’s considered a club sport, affiliated with the school through name and color only. Teams get very little funding outside of player dues and the occasional sponsor.
But the women’s rugby world is changing. In the past five years, 14 universities have added varsity-level rugby to their athletic rosters. This gives up-and-comers like Rosko the chance to play their sport on scholarship — a bona fide holy grail for any athlete, let alone those who never thought they’d play at the highest level.
And that’s exactly where Barto is headed next. After this weekend — and hopefully another trophy for the Nittany Lions — she’ll head to tryouts for the All-American women’s squad. It’s a showcase for potential World Cup and USA Olympic players. With any luck, she’ll make the cut and earn a spot on the women’s national team, headed by her former Penn State coach, Don Ferrell.
About halfway through a question — maybe something about what she’ll do with life after rugby — Barto stops suddenly. It’s time for the next game and her coach is calling. The tournament schedule is unrelenting, but no matter.
“I’m feeling it right now,” Barto said before heading to a 46-0 win over James Madison University. “It’s the third championship in three weeks I’ve played, but I’m really feeling in the zone. This is the last time I get to play in a Nittany Lions jersey and finishing with an undefeated season would be amazing.”
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