Now married, Karen and John Johannesen, Keene State College alumni, have returned to coach the men’s and women’s rugby teams. It was also through rugby that their relationship first formed. 

Karen and John said that they had never played rugby before arriving at KSC.

John explained how his interest in rugby began.

Claire Hickey / Equinox Staff

Claire Hickey / Equinox Staff

“I was screwing around with some of the [lacrosse] guys one day on the field, I didn’t know lacrosse very well, and I saw the rugby guys playing, said, ‘Oh, what’s that?’” John continued, “Then I dropped my kit, ran off the field and started playing rugby — I never turned back.”

Similar to John, Karen said that she was also very new to the sport. In fact, she noted that she had never heard of rugby until she came to KSC.

“A friend of mine said, ‘I’m going to go to the rugby meeting, do you want to come?’ So I went with her … I played, she didn’t and I never stopped,” Karen said.

According to the couple, their mutual passion for rugby stayed with them from the moment they started playing. They also said that it was this passion that drove them to come back to KSC and coach.

John began coaching KSC men’s rugby in 2004 after a year of helping the previous coach. John said since he began coaching, his regular season record is 98 wins and ten losses, with nine wins and seven losses during playoffs. He also said that in 2010, he and the team took second place at nationals against Pennsylvania State University.

“I’m pretty proud of my record and the guys too, they work really hard,” John said.

Karen said she started to help coach in spring of 2005. However, she said this is her first time as an official coach. “We have a lot of fun,” she said, “We have some seasons that are really good, where we win ninety percent of our games.”

Because this is Karen’s first official season as a coach, she said she finds herself asking her husband for advice frequently. “I would say a good eighty percent of our conversations during the season revolve around rugby,” Karen stated.

Aside from coaching, John said he started a men’s rugby club in town in 2006. “It started off with a lot of alumni from Keene State,” John explained, “It was good to be a part of that considering my playing days are all over.”

He said that the strong rugby culture at KSC greatly contributes to the town’s rugby club.

“They want to play as long as they can and as hard as they can, and there is professional stuff nowadays, but to be playing in this high-league, high-compression that works with your job and life — it just works,” John said.

Karen said that she has been trying to help the town start a women’s rugby club for a while now, but has been unsuccessful, as she stated, “We can’t get enough women to play, no matter how hard we try.”

Though efforts to start a town club team have fallen short, Abbie Sweatt, a junior on the women’s rugby team, said that Karen’s commitment and passion for the team is always at 100 percent.

“[Karen] supports us and directs us to ensure that we work our hardest,” Sweatt said, “Karen is really good at being our mother on the field and off … She’s always looking out for us.”

Karen said that she believes it is very important for girls to know that rugby doesn’t have to take up their entire life.

“I think a lot of women look at rugby as very tough and rugged, but there’s something for everybody in rugby,” Karen said.

“You can be small and fast, you can be big and strong, you can be somewhere in-between but there’s always a place for you.” She also noted, “A lot of women don’t realize that you can go and be super tough on the rugby field and then go and be feminine and like other stuff when you’re [not] on the field … It doesn’t have to be rugby all the time,” Karen said.

John’s efforts with the team also do not go unnoticed.

KSC men’s rugby player, Dylan Guyer, junior, said he came to Keene as a football player. Due to the lack of KSC’s football team, he said, Guyer decided to join rugby.

“After trying out rugby, I found that coach did a really great job teaching me a sport I had no knowledge of,” Guyer said.

John said that one of his favorite things about rugby is that it allows every kind of player to find their niche — in fact, he explained, that is why he doesn’t make cuts.

“As people come out to practice, they realize that we train as hard or harder than any NCAA sport here,” John said. He continued, “After running these drills, something clicks and a guy who might not have been a star player at anything else can find he’s really good at rugby.”

He added that he believes the lack of extensive protective equipment and the raw aspect of the game are what cause his team to respond so well.

Both Karen and John said that it was the sense of teamwork and belonging that make rugby so great for them. “The amount of work we do together to succeed through practice and games breeds as camaraderie. It’s that camaraderie that brings back alumni and allows our alumni league to branch from premiere to fourth division,” John said.

“I have to say all of my friends that I keep in touch with all play rugby. My rugby friends, men and women, are the ones you can count on for life,” Karen said.


Claire Hickey can be contacted at

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