Brown spending spring break in Prague, Zurich

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Twenty-six student-athletes from the Ivy League's Brown University will spend their 2016 Spring Break in Europe beginning this weekend, with matches scheduled against the senior national teams of Czech Republic and Switzerland.

Led by Head Coach, longtime Women's Eagle, and recent U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Kathy Flores, the Bears left for Zurich Friday, March 25, with four additional staffers, including an athletic trainer. While the majority of the travel group are seniors - 11 of the 26 will graduate this year - the trip across the Atlantic Ocean will be the first for many.

"I can't remember if I have a couple of girls who may have gone on a trip to Scotland," Flores said, "but I think everybody that's going has never been out of the country on a rugby trip. It's pretty exciting. This is also kind of a trip for the seniors . . . [and there are a few] freshmen we think are going to be valuable to helping us next year."

Eleven additional juniors and sophomores are in the traveling NCAA Varsity squad, coming off of a fall in which the program won six of its first eight matches before falling to Dartmouth in the Ivy Championship Game. Following an extended winter break, the Bears have split time between playing 15s and sevens, now an Olympic sport set to make its debut this summer in Rio de Janeiro.

Read about Penn State's spring break tour to Italy

The skill set required in the game of sevens benefitted the returning student-athletes, who were able to polish some individual skills in the calendar year's colder months before returning to the 15s environment, which is what will be played on tour.

Varsity status with the NCAA is valuable to the club for many reasons, including the players and staff's accommodations throughout their stay in Central Europe. For a club that has not traveled abroad on a rugby tour in 10 years - the last trip was to Uganda - the backing is a difference-maker, as was the connection between Flores and international match official Dana Teagarden.

Teagarden, also a member of the Women's Eagles player pool during her career, is one of the most lauded American referees of all time, and was the first female match official appointed by World Rugby to officiate a men's international test match. Living in Germany following her retirement in 2014 - her last match, coincidentally, was in Prague - she received a call from Flores asking about a potential meet-up should a Brown tour to Europe be approved. With connections of her own, Teagarden recommended getting in touch with Fédération Suisse de Rugby and Ceska Rugbyova Unie, the rugby unions of Switzerland and Czech Republic, respectively.

"From there it just kind of took off," Flores said. "So we talked to them and they were willing to play us - and I'm sure when we say 'national team 'it will probably be a lot of the players they want to look at, which is going to be great for them. They can get a lot of their younger players in who may not get a lot of time.

"And, for us, we were like, 'What? Play national teams? Of course!'"

The Bears will arrive in Zurich early Saturday morning before the match against Switzerland Monday evening, March 28, after which the group will head to Prague for a Wednesday night match against Czech Republic. The team will return to the States April 2, meaning there will be time to venture out in two very different, but equally intriguing, foreign lands.

"We thought we'd wait until we got there and kind of see what people were interested in doing," Flores said. "We talked about it but no one really seemed to get on board with any one thing. Once we're there we'll decide, and it'll probably be that we have a couple of groups so not everyone has to go to the same place, but maybe there's two groups because we don't want to get too far apart, you know, with some of the stuff that's happening over in Europe right now."

In her illustrious career as a player and coach, Flores was with the U.S. women's national team before there was such a thing prior to the first sanctioned match against Canada in 1987. Flores was captain of the team in that first match and would go on to wear the No. 8 jersey on the World Cup-winning 1991 team, eventually taking over the coaching role of the program for nearly a decade.

While she has been with a variety of rugby programs throughout the country, including San Francisco Fog and a stint with Berkeley All Blues that yielded 11 national titles, Brown is her first NCAA Varsity employer. In the first year in the Ivy League, the Bears went undefeated against conference foes and lost just one of 11 matches. Flores was named the USA Rugby 2014 Female Coach of the Year at the end of that fall season, and returned to Rhode Island to continue growing the young NCAA Varsity program.

The support that comes with being one of the first 12 NCAA Varsity schools, with three more to join commencing with the upcoming 2016-17 competitive season, combined with the professionalism of an Ivy League institution and Flores' rugby experience, could very well lead Brown to new heights on and off of the pitch.

"It's something I've never done before," the head coach said. "I've obviously worked with college women before, but usually club teams trying to put it together. This has a whole new dynamic to it because it's a lot more structured, there are a lot more requirements on the coach and on the players in terms of the NCAA. In that way it's brand new."

The Bears, who will play Czech Republic at Prague's Marketa Stadium Wednesday, March 30, have published an online blog for supporters hoping to follow the spring break tour to Central Europe, and have social media handles on Twitter and Instagram to be updated throughout the coming week.