“Who’s Hannah Pfersch?” a bewildered freshman asks senior Savannah Landphier.
“What!? Only the best Hamilton rugby player ever!” Landphier replied.
Hamilton Rugby Football Club is entering its 5th year, but this is its first 15s season without Hannah Pfersch. As a sophomore Pfersch was named the team’s first captain and held onto the title until she graduated. Head Coach Katie “Mac” McNeil was tasked with selecting Pfersch’s replacement. With how much Pfersch offered to the team, it’s no surprise McNeil chose two players to fill the one vacancy.
Seniors Ayana Phelps and Savannah Landphier were named captains in September, and they’ve helped guide the Chargers to their best finish in the regular season, and for the first time, Hamilton feels they at least have a shot at the 15s title heading into the playoffs.
Hannah Pfersch: The First Captain
“I had never met her before she showed up to practice,” explained former Head Coach Barry Holloway. “But she just had this presence, even as an underclassman, and a great work ethic. We knew she was going to be our captain, and it didn’t matter that she had no rugby experience or even an understanding of the game because no one on the team did.”
Pfersch would lead the team through an inaugural season where they only won half their games, but in the following years, she helped Hamilton to a 3rd place finish in 15s rugby in 2018 and a state title in 7s in 2019 before her senior year was cut short due to the pandemic.
“It’s funny,” says Pfersch, now a sophomore prop at Quinnipiac University, “looking back now all I can see are the mistakes I made and how poorly I handled everything. Being captain is often a thankless job with people quick to critique and slow to commend. You can never make everyone happy, and the job is never done.”
Pfersch definitely got the job done. She was the team’s forward of the year every year between 2017 and 2019. She won WGR all-state honors all three seasons she played and was named MVP of the 2018 WGR 3rd place match. She captained the Wisconsin All-Stars JV team in her first campaign and captained their varsity team when they went undefeated at USA Rugby’s Midwest regional. She also was on the USA Rugby U-18 team in games against Canada. This past summer, Pfersch was inducted into the team’s hall of fame and had her #75 retired by the team.
“She was the face of rugby [at Hamilton],” explained junior Meghan Rank. “She would also run drills, so she was kind of like a coach to everyone who was new.”
Phelps added, “She was always pretty positive with us. I am sure it was frustrating at times. When new players come in, you have to teach them the game when you already know things, but for us she was always really patient and was there when we needed to ask questions.”
“If there was ever a problem,” noted Landphier, “I could always go to her. I knew I could trust her if I needed to talk about something.”
Selecting New Leadership
McNeil was announced as the new general manager of Hamilton over the summer and with the departure of 15s head coach Vic Drover, she took on that role as well.
“[McNeil] is perfect for the job,” explained Holloway. “She knows the game but more importantly she knows how to connect with our players.”
Holloway hasn’t completely left the team. He mostly handles the administrative aspects of the organization while Amanada “Snooki” Huber helps McNeil coach the players.
With new leadership off the field, thoughts turned to who would now lead the team on the field.
“We have a lot of great leaders on the team, but in our conversations as coaches we kept coming back to the same couple of names. But [Landphier] and [Phelps] really felt like the most obvious choices,” said Holloway.
Both players graduated from the team’s leadership academy, which is a volunteer opportunity for players to engage in leadership activities within the team. Landphier had some additional experience as one of the team’s tag rugby coaches.
McNeil had the final decision and noted that “[Landphier] has continued to develop into a leader who empowers those around her, and she takes pride of leading by example.”
As for Phelps, McNeil explains that “[she] embodies both grit and determination. [She] helps promote confidence in her teammates by her ability to remain calm in game situations and no one moment ever seems too big. When our team needs a big tackle or game changing run, we know we can look to her for that guidance. [Phelps] has always been an influence on her teammates, and as a leader she has had the ability to encourage the best in others.”
Pfersch got to know both of her replacements, first as a teammate during Phelps and Landphier’s first two seasons and again when she came back last spring to help coach them in their junior year.
“[Landphier] is somehow simultaneously exactly the same and completely different to when she started,” explain Pfersch with a smile. “Her goofy personality has never faded but seeing her step into leadership on the team has been so fun to watch. [She] leads through service and dedication to others. She has always had a team first mentality, and her leadership through actions is stronger than words.”
The first thing Pfersch noticed about Phelps was her speed at wing, but she quickly learned that Phelps could bring more to the team. “She came off very shy to start but was very eager to learn and not afraid to challenge her teammates. It’s so cool to see how those aspects morphed into her knowledgeable and vocal styles of leadership.”
What Makes A Good Captain?
All three Hamilton captains have their own opinions on what makes a good captain.
Pfersch noted that before anything else it was about being “the kind of leaders [teammates] respect.” She added, “As a captain I tried my best to lead by example. Things like putting in extra work before or after practice, setting up the field on gameday, helping a teammate learn a new skill, even just focusing and listening to the coaches, goes a long way when you are in that spotlight. Little things get noticed [by other players], and it goes a long way.”
Phelps added that it’s important to listen to your teammates as well. “[You have to make sure] you are there for your teammates if they are having a rough day, being there to pick them up.”
Landphier went further with this noting that it is the captain’s responsibility to manage the team culture and climate. “[The captain’s role is about] setting a good environment for the whole team…and creating the tone for the environment of the whole team.”
These things aren’t easy tasks for young leaders.
“I remember, after dealing with some issue, [Pfersch] was in my room, clearly exhausted by the expectations of the role,” explain Holloway. “I remember her saying something like ‘she wished she could be like the other players and just show up and play rugby.’ She was tired of the responsibility, the second-guessing by teammates, and being the face of Hamilton rugby. That’s a lot to put on a young player. To her credit she fought through those tough times and remained an excellent leader for us. It’s probably good now that we have two captains because that allows them to share some of that burden.”
In Pfersch’s own words, a lot of the job was “[f]inding the balance between working with your peers and coaches. That can be extremely challenging. While [that is] difficult, the hardest part as a captain or any leader role is staying true to yourself, your ideas, your attitudes, and your knowledge. These will all be challenged at some time or another and can either knock you down or build you up. That’s up to you.”
Savannah Landphier and Ayana Phelps: The New Captains
Landphier and Phelps have led the team to multiple records and firsts this season.
Hamilton’s three regular season wins tied a team record, their 71-0 win against Muskego set a team record for most points in a game, and the team set season records for most points (190) and points against (36). They also came within two points of beating CMH, a team they were 0-5 against and had lost to by an average of about 60 points per game.
A lot of the credit of that success goes to Landphier and Phelps who helped set a winning culture to make this shift possible.
“The energy they bring,” explained junior Grace Farrell. “[Phelps] knows when to get things done, but also knows when it’s okay to goof around.”
“With [Landphier],” she added, “there’s just this bunch of support that is so positive.”
Farrell credits both of them for helping her grow as a player. They make our team “[feel] like a family. I grew up with them while I grew up with the sport. They taught me how to use my voice. The first thing I noticed on the field is that they both were super talkative, and me as a little freshman, I was scared, and I just heard [Phelps] and [Landphier]. They taught me how to speak up.”
Likewise, the girls “make themselves available to talk to,” according to Rank. That is an interesting review of the current captains, captains who noted that one of the qualities they valued most in Pfersch was that she could be trusted “if [they] needed to talk about something.”
It is clear that each of these captains are passing on more than rugby skills or institutional knowledge of team routines but also the qualities of great leadership and what it means to be a supportive teammate.
Next year, after Phelps and Landphier graduate, the new captains will lead through actions and qualities that have been handed down to them through multiple generations of Hamilton rugby captains.
The Captain’s Goals
Before the girls leave, they have some goals they want to accomplish before graduation.
“We’ve been working to win against teams like DSHA and CMH for a while,” explained Phelps. “Being able to actually do that would be a huge victory for everyone.”
Landphier knows this means more work for the captains. “[We have to] keep pushing our girls to do their best and put in the work to get there. Getting people in the right mindset because obviously we are going to have a lot of pressure going into a state finals.”
Both captains know a state championship would mean a lot to people not just on their team.
Phelps explained, “I am sure all of our alumni hearing about our season is making them very excited. They will be like ‘we started this team, and this is how far they’ve come.’ It’s going to be a big moment for them as well. It’s going to be huge. That’s all I have to say.”
Landphier sees that as the ultimate goal: “making the alumni proud of what they started,” because she adds, “without them we wouldn’t be where we are now. I feel like they really set the foundation for us, and we kept building on it.”
An important alumna, Pfersch, has a message for them: “Play with purpose. You’ll never be with this group of people at this moment ever again. Make it count and something to remember with pride.”