By Karen Billing
Local college counselor Karen Fong-Donoghue specializes in working with families to get students into the right school. Working for Dunbar Educational Consultants, the former rugby player has a soft spot for helping local rugby players reach the next level.
The former assistant rugby coach at Cathedral Catholic High, Fong-Donoghue was recently named the academic advisor for the USA Rugby High School All-American Team.
Aspiring rugby players can face some challenges when looking to continue their playing career in college — rugby isn’t a sport that the majority of players can get recruited for as there are only 18 varsity or quasi-varsity rugby programs in U.S. colleges. UC Berkeley, Wheeling Jesuit and Notre Dame College of Ohio are just some examples of varsity rugby where the sport can get help with admission or a financial scholarship.
As there are limited opportunities to play collegiate rugby, students have to have the GPA, the test scores and the eligibility requirements to first get into schools and get the chance to play and possibly move on to the national or Olympic level.
“My whole philosophy with my company is I want a best fit,” Fong-Donoghue said. “I want a kid to go to a school where they have the best chance to be successful in college and also successful in their sport.”
Fong-Donoghue played rugby at UC Davis, getting into the scrum at the ground level of the women’s sport at the college. It was still a relatively new women’s sport in college and her first year as a freshman was also the start of a new league in Northern California.
“When I went to school I knew I wanted to do a sport and I thought why not do a sport where everyone is on the ground floor learning,” said Fong-Donoghue, who played volleyball and was part of the cheer team in high school.
It was a fun yet challenging sport and she played five years for Davis. She reached collegiate All American status in 2000 and in 2002 she played for the Junior National Team, touring England.
Fong-Donoghue continued to play in the adult club level for the UCLA Club Team and founded the Santa Monica Women’s Rugby Team before retiring from play and moving to San Diego to get her school counseling degree and get into rugby coaching.
She coached the San Diego Young Aztecs youth club from 2008-11, was the assistant coach at Cathedral Catholic for the last two years and now regularly works as a rugby referee in addition to her consulting services.
In December, Fong-Donoghue provided consulting help at the USA Rugby High School All American Camp in December, which featured 110 players from all over the U.S. and five from Carmel Valley high schools, including Torrey Pines High senior Billy Maggs; brothers Johnathan and Torran Raby, a senior and sophomore at Torrey Pines; Cathedral Catholic junior Aaron Mitchell; and Cathedral senior Drew Gaffney.
With some help working with Fong-Donoghue, Maggs has already verbally committed to Cal Berkeley rugby. He was a member of last year’s High School All American team and was selected to the USA Rugby High School All Americans 7s team for 2013 and will compete at the Las Vegas 7s.
Gaffney has also committed to Cal and was a member of the HSAA team last year and Mitchell has been selected to the HSAA U17 team that will tour England in March.
“The key thing I told the players was that they need to understand they need to do well in the classroom as much as they are doing well on the pitch,” Fong- Donoghue said.
As an example, she said one of the top rugby programs right now is at Dartmouth where the head coach recently stepped down to focus as coach of the Sevens National Team that will go to the Olympics.
“I told them if you’re going to go to Dartmouth, you better have your grades and test scores and the entire package for you to go and play there,” she said. “You can’t get ‘Cs and Ds’ and expect to play there. The parents were glad that I said that.”
San Diego and the Carmel Valley area specifically has become a real hotbed for growing top level rugby players.
San Diego Youth Rugby Mustangs started in 2004 in Carmel Valley with just two teams.
Now the league has about 170 players in the program with teams from under-8 to under-19 and partners with Torrey Pines High for their junior varsity and varsity teams.
Their club high school team which plays when the high school season ends, draws players from Cathedral Catholic, Torrey Pines, Canyon Crest Academy, La Costa Canyon and Westview. Cathedral is in the process of building its own club which will have under-8 through under-14 squads.
“It’s a less structured game so all the kids have the opportunity to explore more with their athletic ability rather than be relegated to a certain roll,” said Bill Leversee, the Mustangs director of coaching who played for the U.S. National Team and played the sport professionally in South Africa and Europe.
Leversee said the club still has room to grow—they are looking to get CIF sanctioned, which will allow them to be even more competitive and they are trying to build awareness at local grade schools by introducing rugby in PE classes.
“Rugby is what lacrosse was a few years ago in terms of growth,” Fong-Donoghue said. “It can be a pathway to college and I think more families are taking notice.”