Rusty Rae/News-Register file photo##
Rusty Rae/News-Register file photo##
Submitted image##A news clipping from Christine Bader’s days as a player on the Amherst College women’s rugby team.
Submitted image##A news clipping from Christine Bader’s days as a player on the Amherst College women’s rugby team.

Christine Bader: To improve girls' well-being, get them on the rugby pitch

Teenage girls are experiencing a mental health crisis. In 2021, 57% of U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless — nearly double the rate of boys, and up from 36% in 2011, according to a national CDC survey of over 17,000 youth.

There are many reasons: social media, the pandemic, economic instability and tensions around politics, race, and climate that affect us all. Such a multidimensional problem requires multidimensional solutions.

But one solution is proven to have positive effects on the health and well-being of teen girls: participation in sports.

Girls who play sports are more likely than non-athletes to eat healthy foods, get ample exercise and sleep, and refrain from smoking cigarettes. Female athletes are also more likely to report high self-esteem and plan to graduate from a four-year college.

McMinnville School Superintendent Debbie Brockett understands the importance of sports in girls’ lives — and not just from the data, but from her firsthand experience.

Neither her parents nor her two older sisters graduated from high school, and she could have easily gone down the same path. But a neighbor introduced her to softball, and she picked up volleyball and basketball soon thereafter.

She even tried out for baseball when she moved to a school without softball. The school added softball the following year, which she half-jokingly speculates was to keep her out of baseball.

Sports introduced her to people with different experiences, enabling her to envision graduating from high school and beyond.

“I got over the hurdles of generational poverty due to being involved in sports,” she told me. “I wouldn’t be sitting where I am now if I didn’t have sports in my life.”

Having seen the positive effects of sports as a player, coach, principal and parent, she is now an ardent champion of expanding afterschool athletic and club opportunities in the district.

Yet challenges remain.

Despite the benefits, 40% of girls in the U.S. report not engaging in any sports, versus only 25% of boys. Girls also report a higher attrition rate; nearly one-third of girls quit sports between 8th and 12th grade, double the rate of boys.

Why? One reason could be that three-quarters of youth coaches are men.

Of course, gender is not the sole determinant of a coach’s fit with any given team or player.

But some male coaches might not be prepared to discuss how menstruation or sports bra fit can affect performance, or think to keep period products in the medical kit with other team supplies. And as the Women’s Sports Foundation has written, “Girls more readily identify with and see a female coach as a mentor and as a role model, which, in turn, can help counter stereotypes and boost girls’ confidence, self-efficacy and sense of belonging.”

Another deterrent is that social norms still encourage a skinny, muscle-free body type, manifesting in ways ranging from skimpy uniforms to body shaming. Elite female athletes in track, tennis, gymnastics, basketball, soccer and other sports have spoken out about the double standard they’ve been held to by supposed fans, pundits, and even coaches demanding athleticism while criticizing their musculature.

But there is one girls’ sport that is notably empowering and inclusive, and has a storied tradition right here in Yamhill County: rugby, the full contact sport that was invented in England in the early 1800s.

The Valley Panthers Girls Rugby Club started during the 2003-04 school year with about 40 players and support from Mac High chemistry teacher DeVon Cutrell and student Adam Rowe, according to Ashley Reed, one of the original Panthers who later came to coach the club. The boys club, the West Valley Rams, started one year earlier.

The Panthers have since racked up multiple state championships and sent players to state, regional, national, international, and collegiate squads.

Suzanne Fuller has had two daughters play for the Panthers, with a third having just finished her first year on the team. She told me that once they started playing, “The difference in them is amazing.”

Since girls don’t typically grow up playing contact sports, she said, “They don’t know how strong they are — until all of a sudden they’re so strong. I love that, not just for my own girls, but all the girls that I’ve seen go through rugby over the last eight years.”

One of those girls is Adriana “Coco” Mendoza, a 2017 Mac High graduate who discovered the Panthers during her sophomore year and found playing rugby to be transformative.

“Being the oldest daughter in a Hispanic household, there was a lot going on,” Mendoza said. “I felt like I was drowning.

“Once I started getting a real passion and love for the sport, I felt myself change. I felt myself get less angry and feel more motivated, create more goals and tell myself that I wanted to do bigger things.”

And bigger things she did.

After high school she was selected to play for Team Mexico. She won a starting spot on their first-ever women’s World Cup squad in 2018, which was “an absolute dream.”

She was then awarded a scholarship to Life University in Marietta, Georgia, from which she graduated last month with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, along with a national championship medal. She plans to continue playing — she’s currently eyeing a stint in New Zealand, the mecca of international rugby — and pursue her Ph.D.

Mia George is a rising senior at Mac High who started playing her freshman year — reluctantly, as she had tried other sports, but had not felt welcome.

“Then I came to play rugby, and I saw that I could be myself,” she told me. “Rugby’s built character in us; showed us you’re not supposed to treat anyone differently because they play badly, or because they’re not as fast, or they don’t look the same. You just learn to love everyone on the team for who they are and how they are.”

Indeed, rugby has a position for every body type, which fosters a culture of inclusivity and belonging. This spring’s Panthers roster comprised a higher percentage of students of Latina, Native American and Asian or Pacific Islander descent than the county as a whole, and included highschoolers from McMinnville, Willamina, Dayton, and Yamhill-Carlton.

The camaraderie extends beyond teammates, too. Rugby tradition dictates the home team host the away team for a post-match social.

When I played in college, the socials involved beer and singing. At the high school level, players’ parents organize a hearty meal, which teams eat together while captains announce a player of the match on the opposing side and award them a team T-shirt.

I found out about the Panthers last spring and immediately reached out to help. It’s been 30 years since I played in my last rugby game, but I have never forgotten how much the game taught me about resilience, teamwork, leadership and community.

Rugby isn’t for everyone. It doesn’t solve all of life’s problems. But for some girls, rugby — or any sport — can make a world of difference.

I asked Mendoza if she ever thinks about what her life would have been like had she not found rugby.

“All the time,” she laughed, and said that what she imagines “isn’t very pretty.” She added, “It saved me.”

In addition to teaching in Linfield University’s master of science in business program, guest writer Christine Bader coaches the Valley Panthers, a local girls rugby team. She played college rugby in the early 1990s at Amherst before embarking on a career in business. She is posting her sources for this article on social media. You can find more information about the Valley Panthers on Facebook, Instagram and the website at