Naya Tapper, the hyper-athletic sophomore wing who exploded onto the rugby scene last year, is ready for an even bigger season this year. Now that her techniques have improved and she has a full year of experience under her belt, the forecast is bright.
When Tapper first came to UNC-Chapel Hill as a freshman, she had never played rugby, but just a few months later she was in Chula Vista, Calif., working out with the United States national team.
Tapper, 19, plays wing for UNC-CH’s women’s rugby team. She stands around 5 feet 10 inches tall and was an All-American sprinter at West Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte. Her speed is what attracted coach Ric Suggitt of the U.S.A. Women’s Rugby Sevens, says Tapper’s coach, Johnathan Atkeison.
“She is tremendously physically gifted,” says Atkeison, who is in his fifth year of coaching the Carolina women’s rugby team. “She is, if not the fastest, probably one of the top two to three fastest in women’s college rugby.”
There are two primary national teams for women’s rugby: sevens and fifteens. The sevens, which is the Olympic variant of rugby, is a shorter game with seven players on each team, as opposed to the traditional fifteen. Atkeison says there is “a huge premium on speed” in sevens, which is why Suggitt wanted Tapper to come work out with the national team.
She did not disappoint. She tied with Vix Folayan, the fastest player on the team, in the 40-meter sprint while she was at the camp.
Tapper gets her incredible speed from her mother and father, who both ran track when they were younger. The rest of her family is similarly athletically gifted. Her brother, Mark LeGree, is a safety in the NFL. She also has two younger sisters, both athletes, who measure in at six feet tall.
Growing up, Tapper was a self-described tomboy. She played football with the boys and wanted to be the first female NFL player. In high school, she played powderpuff football, where girls play and the boys cheer, but for Tapper, it wasn’t just a high school tradition.
“It’s so boring because all you do is snatch the flag,” Tapper says. “That’s too easy. So I wanted to play rugby, but my [track] coach wouldn’t let me.”
When Tapper got to Carolina, she didn’t understand most of the concepts of rugby. She didn’t know any of rugby’s basic techniques or how the game was played, but her natural athletic ability was enough to get her through her first season.
“All I knew how to do was run,” she says, “and that’s really all I had to do. The only thing I had to learn was like the technique, like tackling and passing backward.”
In addition to being a star player, Tapper also holds the position of match secretary. In this role, she schedules all of the team’s matches, including the fall 2013 season opener, a doubleheader on Oct. 5.
Tapper does not plan to continue playing rugby after college, though Atkeison says she could if she changes her mind. Instead, she wants to go to school for physical therapy and eventually get a job as a physical therapist for a college football team.
As for why she chose to come to UNC-CH, Tapper says the choice was simple.
“I’m very competitive, and I like being the best at everything I do,” she says. “So I wanted to go to the best school and be the best at whatever sport I’m doing.”