WASHINGTON – Takunda Rusike learned about rugby through her cousins and uncles who played in Zimbabwe, including one uncle who represented the national team.

It wasn't until she was a junior in high school, though, that Rusike began to play herself.

Three years later, Rusike, 19, has created a club team at Howard — just the second women's squad at a historically Black university — that has ambitions of obtaining varsity status. Her efforts coincide with a broader push to make the sport more accessible to African Americans in the Washington region and more popular around the country.

"It's growing, and there are definitely more Black women getting into the sport, but when I was playing in Maryland in high school, there was not many Black girls," said Rusike, who attended Towson High. "I would really love to create a program where years down the line there are little Black girls who know, 'I love rugby, and I can play it at Howard.'"

Rusike had been struggling with her mental health after the pandemic shuttered activities and in-person classes at Howard.

Rusike also played basketball and soccer in high school, but after she fouled out enough times and collected yellow cards often enough, she was persuaded to try rugby. She joined her Baltimore-area club team and took an instant liking to it. She eventually attracted the attention of college coaches but chose to attend Howard.

Washington's pro rugby team, Old Glory DC, invited Rusike to participate in its newly established academy, and she planned to join a D.C.-area club. But her friends persuaded her to try to start a team at Howard, and after generating interest through group chats and social media, she started developing a plan as a freshman last year.

The widespread support energized Rusike and Daniel Davillier, a junior at Howard who had been organizing a men's team around the same time. They said the burgeoning programs gave them renewed passion and purpose during the pandemic.

"There's been so much community support for the rugby team. This honestly could not have happened without so much support," Davillier said.

The NCAA classifies women's rugby as an "emerging sport" and sanctions teams to play across three classifications: Division I, Division II and Division III. Club teams can compete against varsity programs, but being elevated to varsity status offers benefits that include greater access to facilities and equipment. At its highest level, the men's game is overseen by USA Rugby, the sport's national governing body. Men's programs exist outside the NCAA as varsity, quasi-varsity or club teams, depending on the resources and recognition afforded by individual schools.

The Howard women's team has about 20 players, half of whom had previous rugby experience. It won its debut match in an exhibition against Johns Hopkins.

Davillier expects the men's team, which has 17 players, to compete in rugby sevens, an abridged version of the sport that requires half as many players, when it kicks off later this school year.

Both Howard teams will make their official debuts this spring, at which point Rusike hopes the women will compete as a varsity program and begin to establish themselves as competitive newcomers.

"I want us to be a force to be reckoned with. I want us to be a topic of conversation," Rusike said.