By Thomas Becker
Unless she's decked out in Panther threads, you'd be forgiven if you didn't recognize Brinten Comeau amongst the hundreds of students who make their way around UPEI's campus.
But packed in that five-foot-four frame of hers is a gritty and skilled rugby player who has put the league on notice. And the exciting part is, she's just a rookie.
FOR THE LOVE OF RUGBY
Many high-level athletes begin their chosen sport at a young age, but Comeau was a late bloomer. She started playing for her high school team in Grade 10 and credits her cousin for introducing her to the sport she'd quickly grow to love.
"My school didn't offer my other sport [ringette] so picking rugby seemed like the best option," said the 18-year-old. "I was drawn to rugby because it was so different from anything I had ever seen, and I like the contact part about it."
The Hammonds Plains, N.S. native picked up the sport quickly and was a natural on the field. The following two years, she'd become the focal point and captain of the Charles P. Allen Cheetahs.
But it was in the summers where her game really took off. Her best friend, Ritaj Abdoulla, who participated in Nova Scotia's Keltics program, encouraged her to come out to all the sessions. She started out with the Keltics developmental team, before progressing through the system to suit up for the Keltics under-17 team and the under-18 Ireland touring squad.
"Coach [Jack] Hanratty helped me learn more about the game and put in a lot of effort to make me the player I am today," Comeau explained.
UPEI WANTS YOU
While Comeau was harnessing her gifts, the AUS and their teams were gearing up for another season. The St. FX X-Women and Acadia Axewomen had their eyes set on national glory and focused their attention and abundant resources to target proven talent, while the savvy Panthers were looking for hidden gems.
So how did the Panthers strike gold with Comeau?
"I totally credit [Panthers assistant coach] James Voye with this," said Panthers head coach John LaBoyne.
Once Voye found out Comeau had interest in joining UPEI, the pursuit began. Over the next several months, Voye would often check in and inquire about Comeau and did everything he could to convince her the Island university was the right fit for her.
"I really started to lean towards UPEI because of my talks with James," Comeau said. "He was familiar with what I was doing back home and what worked for me, and coming here would be an easy transition."
Even after she signed on the dotted line, the Panthers didn't know exactly what they'd get from their newest addition. They knew she had talent, but they weren't expecting her to play a factor until, at least, her second or third year.
But once she took the field for the first time as a Panther, perceptions quickly changed and LaBoyne still recites the moment that impressed him most upon Comeau's arrival.
BUILDING A REPUTATION
"Day one, she showed up at practice with a notebook and pen to diagram and write out what we were doing," he said. "Brinten came in with an attitude that you don't often see from a high school player."
Comeau said she started this routine to understand the game better and gives her insight on how she can take advantage of scenarios that may present themselves.
"In my notebook I have a mix of plays, goals and game reviews, so anytime I have a thought or goal I want to accomplish I can look at it and think about what I'm doing."
That veteran-like attitude served Comeau well in her rookie season, as she earned the trust from her teammates, who gravitated toward her quiet leadership.
"She set the standard for all the players and soon afterwards, everyone was taking notes and talking about what we, as coaches, were presenting," LaBoyne said. "On the field, her drive and skills show through, not just on game day, but in every drill at practice."
Once she became comfortable with Voye's systems of play, she made a clear case that she belonged. The combination of skill, attitude and rugby IQ propelled the flank forward into the starting 15 and she never looked back.
"Our team policy is the best play regardless of years with the program," the bench boss said. "I keep going back to Brinten's skill, drive, desire and leadership. She leads by example."
AND YOUR AUS ROOKIE OF THE YEAR IS…
In her inaugural AUS season, she started in all six games and was UPEI's leading scorer with six tries for 30 points on the season. And she didn't just feast on the Saint Mary's Huskies. She also scored on the eventual national champion X-Women and the Axewomen, who hosted this year's national championship.
Even Comeau was surprised by her own exceptional play.
"Coming to UPEI I didn't think I would be playing as much as I did. I thought I would just be an impact sub coming into the game later," she said. "My first season couldn't have been better, but I know where I want to improve my game to take it to the next level."
Two weeks after the regular season ended, Comeau got some surprising news as she was named an All-Star (along with teammate Lauren Sheidow) and the AUS Rookie of the Year.
"It was unexpected," she said. "I called my mom and told her right away. After the announcement, the congratulations that came flooding in were overwhelming and a couple amazing phone calls really made it special."
Having spent three-plus months with her, the coaches felt it was a foregone conclusion. She deserved the accolades, LaBoyne said.
"Having a new player pick up these prestigious awards compared to so many outstanding athletes in the AUS was wonderful," he said. "It's also amazing as she played one of the most demanding positions at a high level and had the ability to play hard-nosed defence as well as being an integral part of our attack."
While individual accolades are great and all, Comeau is already looking ahead to next season and is committed to turning the Panthers into a championship contender.
By season's end, the team decided to dedicate their time toward personal growth. So far, the offseason has been spent in the gym and at Synergy Fitness & Nutrition in an effort to inch closer to elite rivals, St. FX and Acadia.
"Right now, we're working in the gym trying to get bigger and stronger for next season," Comeau said. "As a team, we want to grow so that one day we will be competing at nationals."
Lofty goals for a program that was once considered an afterthought. But at the heart of it is a renewed devotion to become better than they were yesterday and a lot of that has to do with the quality young pieces they've brought on board.
"By having a player like Brinten select UPEI it sends a message to other elite players, who are considering a school to come to, that UPEI and specifically the Panther rugby program is moving in the right direction and will be a force to be reckoned with in the future," LaBoyne said.