Pankey represents U.S. in Rugby World Cup

Published 11:38 am Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Samantha Pankey established herself as a young woman of many talents during her time at Buckingham County High School, but she broadened the horizons of her abilities even further after that, which has led to her representing her country in the sport of rugby.

Since 2011, Pankey, now 34, has been part of the USA Rugby women’s national team, known as the Women’s Eagles, but this is the first year she will play on the squad in the Women’s Rugby World Cup.

The event takes place in Ireland this year, and play for the Women’s Eagles begins Wednesday against Italy in Dublin.

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Little did she know, Pankey was getting some good preparation for her career in rugby back when she was a Buckingham Lady Knight.

In high school, “I played basketball, softball and I played a couple years of volleyball, but basketball and softball were my main sports,” she said.

She played shortstop for the softball team, and in basketball, she competed all over the court, including playing some point guard, shooting guard and spending time down in the paint on defense as a forward.

Pankey graduated from Buckingham as valedictorian in 2001, and she went on to attend college at East Carolina University (ECU).

There in Greenville, North Carolina, she continued her athletic career on the hardwood, representing the Pirates at the point guard position.

“I was your traditional, lead-the-troops kind of point guard — not very flashy, just got the job done,” Pankey said.

Continuing her stellar academic performance, she graduated from ECU at the top of her class in 2005 after double majoring in English/creative writing and communication/journalism.

Then she moved to Richmond, but she did not leave athletics behind.

“I was playing all different kinds of social sports, and I was on a flag football team, and one of my teammates told me to play a real sport,” Pankey said with a laugh. “And I was like, ‘Alright, what do you got?’ And she introduced me to rugby, and I’ve never looked back. It kind of reignited my competitive drive, so to speak.”

Pankey began her rugby career in 2009.

The processing of learning the sport was easier for her than it might be for many.

“It’s funny — basketball, for some reason, was a really good sport to start with and then to transition into rugby,” she said. “…For basketball, it’s all about seeing space, and that’s exactly how it is on the rugby field.”

“I think the thing that I had to work on most was my running technique, because in basketball, you’re dribbling and you’re constantly staying low,” she said. “In a field sport, my sprint technique was not very good. It’s gotten better over the years, and I’ve gotten faster, actually, as a result, but that was probably the biggest transition.”

Pankey noted the ball skills are quite similar to basketball too, as passing a rugby ball is all about the wrist action.

During the course of her rugby career, she has played for the James River R.F.C., the Washington Furies, the Scion Sirens and she currently plays for the San Diego Surfers when she is not competing with the Women’s Eagles.

She’ll also still play tournaments for the Sirens, which she considers her home team.

The precursor to Pankey making the national team came when she became a member of an all-star team that Women’s Eagles Head Coach Peter Steinberg observed.

Before that point, Pankey said, “I don’t think I had any intentions of playing rugby at the national level. It was a competitive thing, and I was hoping that one day I’d win a national championship with James River at the Division II level. And some of my teammates, they were like, ‘You need to try out for this all-star team. You’re pretty good.’ And so I did, and I made it my second season playing.”

At some point during Pankey’s time playing for the all-star team, her head coach, Bob Weir, wanted to have a word with her.

“He pulled me aside, and he’s like, ‘The national coach wants to talk to you,’” Pankey said. “And so, I talked to him, and he’s like, ‘Would you come out to this camp?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ It’s one of those goosebump moments. Like, I have a chance to represent my country. Of course I’ll come out to this camp. I had no clue that I would actually make a national team, but my first national camp, I made the national team.”

She now plays one of the most technical positions on the field for the Women’s Eagles, requiring a high level of intelligence and physicality.

The last time the World Cup took place, which was in 2014, she was in the pool of players from which the national team was formed, but she was selected as a reserve, and the reserves were not brought along for the trip.

“I was really, really close, but not quite there, so this is my first World Cup,” she said.

The USA Rugby squad is in Pool B with Italy, Spain and defending champion England, which is considered the front runner. The Women’s Eagles will face all of those teams in Dublin, ending with England. If they win the pool or compile the necessary amount of points, they will advance to the semifinal round in Belfast.

As for what Pankey is looking forward to most about this experience, she said, “At first, it was just being able to represent my country at a World Cup. And now that I’m here, the first thing that I’m looking forward to is just stepping out on that pitch, you know?”

“And then I think our team has a ton — a ton — of talent, so I’m really, really looking forward to surprising some teams.”