Two local girls making name for themselves on rugby pitch
By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY – Carolina Martinez may be known throughout the state by her nickname, Little, but the 14-year-old West De Pere sophomore’s presence on the rugby pitch is anything but.
“I have been playing rugby since 2014 or 2015,” Martinez said. “I played flag from elementary to the end of middle school. In sixth grade, I joined the middle school tackle team.”
The sport is not widely known – rugby has only been in the Green Bay area since 1995 – with the Green Bay Banshee girls high school tackle team forming in 2019.
Though some may have seen the game – the oval-shaped ball, the tackling, the lack of pads, the scrums and the toughness – one thing that doesn’t always come to mind when thinking of the sport is girls.
Martinez and longtime teammate Cecelia Rose have been pioneers for girls in this game of strategy and teamwork from the beginning.
“I’ve been playing rugby pretty much my whole life with my dad being the coach and an active player,” she said.
And though Rose and Martinez may not fit the mold of what some would consider tough rugby players – on the pitch, all bets are off.
Carolina ‘Little’ Martinez
Martinez said she first got involved with rugby after seeing a posting in her school’s newsletter.
“I love to run, rugby involves a lot of running, so I told my parents I want to play flag rugby,” she said. “First practice there were only one or two other girls, but I didn’t care. I was in love with rugby the first time I held the ball.”
Martinez said her passion for the game – best explained as a combination of football and soccer – has only grown, and as she got older, she made the transition from flag to tackle.
In the fall of 2021, she said she played her first year of rugby 15s, and rugby 7s in the spring.
Martinez’s continued dedication to the sport she loves afforded her the opportunity to play at an international level with the national select side company – EIRA (Eagle Impact Rugby Academy).
“EIRA has been around since 2017 and has played in Ireland (every year) with the exception of 2020 and 2021 due to COVID,” she said. “This summer EIRA will be taking their first ever high school girls team to Ireland with players from all over the US. Players are selected based on ability and character.”
Martinez can call herself one of the select few – after being selected for the team following a summit and combine in Oshkosh earlier this year.
“I participated in the combine and afterwards (the director) told me to keep up the good work,” she said. “Two weeks later, I was selected to play in Ireland with the U16 team.”
Martinez said ecstatic doesn’t even come close to describing how excited she is for the opportunity.
“EIRA will be playing against some of the best girls in Ireland,” she said. “This is an opportunity that will help me grow as a rugby player.”
While in Ireland, Martinez will train with other selected players leading up to three days of games.
“The girls will be based at Clongowes Wood College, a boarding school in Dublin,” she said. “The tour will last 12 days and EIRA will play Munster, Leinster and Ulster.”
Martinez said she is looking forward to the level of competition the Irish teams are likely to bring.
“I can’t wait to meet and learn from the EIRA coaches,” she said. “As a 14 year old, I am excited for this experience.”
Martinez said she’s thankful Green Bay has a girls rugby team, which in turn provided her with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“Having this team gives young girls the opportunity to learn a sport that is not offered in the school districts,” she said. “It’s important to me, because I can help others learn how to play rugby. Girls rugby can lead to college opportunities, scholarships and lifelong friends that are only possible if our team is around.”
Martinez said rugby has boosted her confidence, sense of belonging and taught her leadership skills.
“My hopes are to continue to play rugby, playing for EIRA, professional rugby and my dream is to represent all girls in the USA at the Olympics in 2033,” she said. “Then eventually coaching the next generation. I don’t see rugby not being a part of my future – it’s a part of me.”
Rugby is a family affair for Martinez – with her older brother Moises playing for the boys high school team in Green Bay, nine-year-old sister Celina playing flag and mom Cindy coaching.
As far as the future – Martinez said she can’t imagine a life without rugby being a part of it.
Cecelia ‘CeCe’ Rose
With a family full of rugby players, Rose, a 15-year-old Bay Port High School student, grew up on a pitch.
“I started flag when I was five,” she said. “I joined the Green Bay program because my brothers played and It looked like fun.”
Rose said having a girls rugby team in the area is important because it gives girls the chance to be involved in a full-contact sport.
Thanks to the recent nomination from club administrator Matt Goetsch, Rose has the opportunity to train with the Midwest Thunderbirds, a traveling rugby team that gives players a chance to play a higher level of rugby in Ohio later this summer.
“At the camp we will have practice and educational meetings that prepare us for games that will be played Saturday and Sunday,” she said.
Rose said the most difficult part about the sport she holds dear is getting people to join – especially girls.
“It’s definitely hard when you care so much about the sport, but are unable to play to the level that you know your team is capable of, because we don’t have the numbers,” she said. “I just know they would love the sport if they gave it a chance.”
This is one of the reasons Rose said she is so appreciative of the chance to train and play with the Midwest Thunderbirds.
“I’m looking forward to learning more about how I can improve my rugby skills and increase my rugby knowledge.”
Rose also has high hopes for her future in rugby.
“What I hope the future of me and rugby looks like is that each year I show progress and improvement and eventually play for a division one college,” she said. “Then from there, my hope is that I play professionally in the 2033 World Rugby Cup.”
While winning is always a great feeling, both girls said the friendship and camaraderie that comes with rugby is like none other.
“When you play rugby you make friends pretty easily,” Martinez said.
Rose said it’s that sense of community that makes rugby, well, rugby.
“Every time we have a new person join, they always talk about how friendly everyone is and how we make rugby not about winning, but having fun and growing as a person,” she said. “This sport really teaches you the value of teamwork and gives everyone an opportunity to score.”
To learn more about Green Bay’s girls rugby club, visit gbbansheerugby.org.