Campus Life

Ondrus gravitates to leading role for Horns rugby

Her official title is interim head coach and former head coach Neil Langevin will still be riding shotgun as an assistant, but make no mistake, the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns women's rugby team knows who will be calling the shots when the 2013 Canada West season opens this fall.

JJ Ondrus (BSc/BEd '04), who has been with the program since its inception, first as a player, and most recently as Langevin's assistant coach for the past 10 years, is taking the reins of the perennial national contenders.

"This was a goal of mine probably since the first couple of years being an assistant," says the 34-year-old Ondrus as she assumes the head role in the wake of Langevin's one-year leave. "I just never thought Neil would give the position up, I figured I'd have to move to get an opportunity to be a head coach at a university level."

Ondrus is coming full circle with the program she first helped build as a player. A soccer player through high school, she graduated out of Catholic Central High, earning a soccer scholarship at the U of L. She played just one year of high school rugby, having to suit up for rival Lethbridge Collegiate Institute because CCH didn't yet have a team of its own.

Three years into her post-secondary career, Horns rugby was born and she switched sports.

"I was OK at soccer but more of a bench player than anything," says Ondrus. "But in rugby I was pretty much the quarterback as a fly half. I was on the field all the time and we played a kicking game and I was the kicker, so I was important and I loved it."

JJ Ondrus
The Horns new interim head coach, JJ Ondrus, has been with the program since its inception.

In her two years as a Pronghorn she experienced just one win, but it's a memory she relishes, and it was the first brick in the construction of the Pronghorn dynasty that would emerge years later.

"That is still Neil's favourite win, and I have the newspaper clipping where he says that," smiles Ondrus, recalling the team's bronze medal victory over the University of British Columbia at the Canada West championship tournament. "I still remember him jumping out of the end zone he was so excited, because we were not supposed to beat anybody that year."

Ondrus earned her education degree and started her teaching career at Winston Churchill High School. She also went straight into coaching, both at the high school level and as one of Langevin's assistants. She has never left the program.

Over the ensuing years, Ondrus taught at Nobleford, then Fort Macleod and eventually returned to Churchill, where she is in her fifth year as a science teacher. At every stop she helped build the sport of women's rugby and like her Pronghorn brethren, played a big role in establishing the vibrant rugby culture in southern Alberta.

"If you look around the high school league, I'm pretty sure every program has a Pronghorn player on the coaching staff," she says. "People are surprised when they come to our community and see the level of support we get and especially the balance between boys and girls rugby. To see 12 girls teams to six boys teams really speaks to the strength of girls rugby in southern Alberta."

Ondrus admits she is somewhat overwhelmed with her new position. She is heavy into recruiting for the new season, knowing the Horns graduated six players last season and two others are not returning to the program. She's also acutely aware that the Horns are coming off what is for them a down year, failing to win the Canada West championship for the first time in seven seasons.

"I'll admit it, I'm a little nervous about that but the coaches and players accept that responsibility and pressure to be the best, we set the bar high and set that expectation on ourselves to go to nationals and compete for a national championship," she says.

Having been a part of the program since its outset, it's hard to imagine anyone else better prepared to take over for the only head coach the Horns have ever known. Ondrus is ready to go.

"I've been with the program since it started in 2000, so it is near and dear to my heart," she says. "I am very excited for my new role and cannot wait to bring my energy and ideas to the table. Neil has set the bar pretty high, but I know, as he does, that I am ready!"

This story first appeared in the February 2013 edition of the Legend. For a look at the full issue in a flipbook format, follow this link.