At the 2018 National Rugby Summit, Virginia women’s rugby Coach Nancy Kechner received USA Rugby’s Female College Coach of the Year award. Each year, this award honors a female coach who “continually demonstrates dedication to empowering female rugby athletes and the advancement of female involvement in the game of rugby.”
As both current players and women’s team alumnae can attest, Kechner does more than just advance the game — she fosters a unique family, forming an unmistakable bond with her team.
Kechner first discovered the game of rugby at Virginia after transferring in 1980. At the activities fair, she found herself standing in front of two six-foot girls who encouraged her to play, saying that they took players of all sizes and didn’t make cuts. Days later, Kechner suited up for her first practice, and fell in love with the game immediately.
“At the first practice, it just occurred to me that this is the single greatest experience I’ve ever had,” Kechner said. “This is the best sport ever.”
Kechner went on to play for the Virginia women’s team for eight years as an undergraduate student and club player after graduating. Her passion for coaching first sprouted in 1984, when she stepped in as a player-coach once the team found itself without a leader. With the sport still in its infancy in America, Kechner had to get creative looking for coaching techniques, scouring local libraries for rugby books while picking the brain of anyone she could find with a strong knowledge of the game.
After continuing her playing career Philadelphia and coaching at Princeton, Kechner returned to Virginia in 1997 and has been coaching the women’s team ever since. Over the years, her on-the-field success as Virginia’s head coach speaks for itself — in her 21 years as coach, she has led the team to 13 Elite Eights, four Final Four appearances and a run at a national championship that fell just short in 2016. As another testament to Kechner’s elite coaching, all this success has come as many of the top college rugby programs.
As an experienced coach, Kechner specializes in coaxing new players into the game of rugby, gradually turning them into high-skill athletes. An 80-minute, full contact sport, rugby requires a combination of ability, endurance and trust, and Kechner knows how to build all three in her players.
Kechner describes her coaching style as player-centered and focused on teaching “Rugby IQ.” For her, what’s on the field only makes up one aspect of coaching and mentoring. Inspired by her first coach at Virginia, Kechner emphasizes openness and trust with her players, welcoming them into her life at home.
“I’ll go home and one of my players will be in my living room petting my dogs, watching TV and eating my leftovers,” Kechner said. “And I love that.”
Kechner’s Charlottesville home is truly a revolving door of rugby players — they stop in on Sunday mornings to walk their coach’s dogs, Rex and Teddy, and gather on Friday nights before games to enjoy a pregame meal prepared by Kechner, who also happens to be a part-time chef.
From opening her doors to any players in need of a place to stay to cooking a fancy send-off dinner for her fourth-years, Kechner’s selfless dedication to her team reaches far beyond the rugby pitch. For her compassion, she is paid back with an outpouring of gratitude from parents and players, some who tell her that they never would have stayed at Virginia had they not found such a welcoming family in rugby.
After dealing with a host of injuries in the fall, the women’s team is back in full force for the spring ready to compete for a national championship. With the first spring home game already fast approaching this Saturday, Kechner has had little time to celebrate the award, focused more on building the foundation for another great season.
As she approaches 30 years in rugby at Virginia and nearly 40 in the sport altogether, Kechner is most proud of the community that she has grown that now reaches far outside the university.
“My alums are all over the world now,” Kechner said. “We email all the time, I get invited to weddings … [It’s great] seeing them grow and seeing them now with families. We’re all wahoos … playing the best sport in the world at this great institution, and I don’t think you can beat that.”