By Thomas Becker
It's not every year that an Atlantic university team gets its hands on a national-level athlete.
But the UPEI Panthers just did after successfully recruiting rugby standout Emma MacLean. The red-carpet treatment clearly worked and coaches John LaBoyne and James Voye couldn't be happier to add the skilled rugger to their squad.
"I'm absolutely thrilled she's going to be a UPEI Panther this fall, and I can't wait to see what she'll add to our team on attack and defence," Voye said.
MacLean has been a member of the Nova Scotia Keltics Academy and IGNITE program for several years now, where she developed into an elite flanker — a position that demands a lot from the athlete. Speed, strength, fitness, tackling and handling skills are all attributes needed to be a successful flanker, as they're most commonly involved in winning the ball in open play.
"Emma is an exceptional player who brings a high work rate and intensity to her game every time she steps on the pitch and we believe she's ready to contribute as a rookie," Voye said. "She has an extremely high work ethic and rugby IQ and she always has the desire to improve."
The 2019 season was a breakout year for the 18-year-old. As the starting flanker for the Keltics under-18 AAA team, MacLean captured a gold medal at the Atlantic Canadian Rugby Championships that July. About a month later, her Keltics put together three impressive wins at the Eastern Canadian U18 Rugby Championships before dropping their semifinal game to Quebec.
But her greatest feat was representing her country as one of Eastern Canada's top-40 players under the age of 18, which earned her an opportunity to participate in a camp — organized by Rugby Canada — and to suit up for a match against USA Rugby East. Having the privilege of wearing the Canadian uniform was a special moment for the young star and it's a snapshot in time she won't soon forget.
"It was definitely a challenging experience for me, playing with such high-level athletes," said the Cole Harbour, NS native. "By surrounding myself with better players and amazing coaches, it helped push me in my training and gave me a bigger goal to go after in my rugby future."
On a Panther squad looking to inch closer to their Atlantic University Sport (AUS) rivals, LaBoyne envisions MacLean making an immediate impact when games resume, similar to how Brinten Comeau did three years ago when she took home the AUS Rookie of the Year crown.
"She will push our current players and compete for a starting position," LaBoyne said. "The Panthers are becoming stronger individually and as a team, and Emma will be another player other teams will have to be aware of."
Whether she's donning the green and white, or representing a nation, MacLean vows to give her all to the sport she's grown to love and that has given her opportunities many athletes can only dream of.
"As a rookie, I'm expecting a challenging year but I'm coming into the season with a positive attitude and high hopes," she said. "My goals are to further my skills as an athlete by learning from other great players."
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