With third straight national title, Ilona Maher leaves behind an unparalleled legacy

By Ryan Chichester

Talk about a hat trick.

The Quinnipiac rugby team took down undefeated Dartmouth 29-20 in the 2017 National Intercollegiate Rugby Association Championship by scoring 24 unanswered points and capturing its third straight national title. The trio of national championships remain the only ones in school history.

The third title was anything but a sure thing. The Bobcats had lost to Dartmouth earlier in the season, and eventually surrendered their top-ranked position to the Big Green. The Bobcats fell behind 15-5 early in the championship game and needed a momentum spurt if they were to hoist the crown for the unprecedented third straight time.

Of course, they turned to senior Ilona Maher.

The eventual tournament MVP scored a big try to tie the match and send the Bobcats on their way. She would finish the game with two tries and two assists, and finished the season with a team-high 23 tries. The backbone of the most successful team in Quinnipiac history, Maher now rides into the shadows of Sleeping Giant with a resume that makes her the top candidate for the best athlete the school has ever seen.

The string of success was something even Maher could not have imagined when transferring from Norwich prior to her sophomore season.

"Sometimes it feels unreal," Maher said. "To win three just shows all the work we put in throughout these years. I came here and winning a champ wasn’t really on my mind. I just wanted to keep playing rugby. Each year we got better and do what we said we were going to do. We completed our mission."

Head coach Becky Carlson has witnessed Maher's profound impact on the Bobcats since she courted Maher from Norwich three years ago, before altering the course of Quinnipiac rugby history.

"Her work ethic is magnetic,” Carlson said. “She’s the type of player that a lot of people look to as an example of what they want to achieve. Not just physically, but also in terms of being a good teammate and leading by example."

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If Maher's personal mission was to win it all during all three of her seasons as a Bobcat, then she accomplished her goal with flying colors, while earning plenty of personal honors along the way. She took home the MA Sorensen Award last season for the best women's rugby player in the country, and followed it up by leading the Bobcats to the pinnacle of college rugby once again.

Maher and the Bobcats have made a living off conquering obstacles during their remarkable three-year stretch. The team didn't have a home pitch all last season. They were able to host the NIRA Tournament this season, but needed to take down a Dartmouth team that looked poised to take Quinnipiac's spot on top of the rugby world. Maher believes their struggles against Big Green were exactly what the Bobcats needed, and reminded her group that resting on their laurels was a death sentence for a chance to repeat as champs.

"To have that first game against Dartmouth and to lose was kind of a wake-up call," Maher said. "We realized these other teams were here to play. When we do get beaten, we know it’s not who we are and we’re much better than that."

The Bobcats woke up from their brief early season snooze and rolled to their third championship, making Norwich the only team in the past four seasons to beat the Bobcats in their final game of the season. That was when Maher was playing for Norwich, before becoming a Bobcat and igniting a national powerhouse.

Maher leaves the new pitch in Hamden with an undeniable legacy of winning, and plans to carry that legacy to wherever she finds herself next. Wherever it is, she plans to have her rugby cleats on.

"I want to go on and play more rugby," Maher said. "This isn’t the end for me. It’s just the beginning."

For Maher, her Bobcats career ended the way it began: with a championship trophy.

Ryan Chichester