BOULDER, Colo. – After playing high school football, Amelia Luciano wanted to compete in a contact sport when she entered college in 2006. She joined the Cornell Women's Rugby team during her first week of college and never looked back. This January, Luciano was awarded the Don Morrison Scholarship, named after one of USA Rugby's most accomplished referees, and will spend the entire 2013 season in Christchurch, New Zealand, as a full-time member of the Canterbury Referee Association.
The Don Morrison Scholarship is a direct result of the USA Rugby Strategic Plan's attempt to encourage more young people to become referees and is completely donor funded through USA Rugby Foundation. The Don Morrison Referee Fund addresses this objective, and the annual scholarship will cover all costs, including travel and lodging and living expenses, for the recipient to travel to and spend an entire season refereeing in a major rugby country.
Luciano served as player-coach of her Cornell team after her head coach moved on in 2008. Her achievements as a player are numerous, including two New York State Conference titles and an appearance in the Division I Northeast Rugby Union Final Four.
"Rugby has been the only 'hobby' I've found that is consistently enjoyable," Luciano said. "It is my first love and my primary reason for being a gym rat."
She made the switch to officiating after graduating from Cornell in 2011.
"I thought it would be challenging," she said, "but I didn't imagine that I would enjoy it as much as I did. My favorite thing about refereeing is that the referee must see the game on multiple levels in order to give both teams a fair chance and in order the ensure law application as it was intended to allow the game to flow."
The first recipient of the Don Morrison Scholarship, Luciano will put off her current Ph.D. studies while in New Zealand.
"The University is as supportive as they can be," Luciano said. "I'm putting my education on temporary hold. I fully intend to pick up where I left off upon returning to the U.S."
While her short-term goals will be postponed for her time in Christchurch, Luciano's long-term goals will be more beneficial to the game of rugby in America.
"Because I am still relatively new to refereeing, my refereeing style is more malleable; I may be able to morph bad habits into good ones more easily than if I had been refereeing for longer," she said. "Upon returning to the United States, I will be able to apply my new knowledge to the games I referee and improve my control over the game, thus improving the game quality for both players and observers.
"New Zealand is the one country in the world that cares about rugby more than any other sport. Immersing myself in that culture and being around so many people who have a deeper understanding and love for the game than most Americans do will allow me to improve my skill set and to gain new perspective."
Twenty applicants were considered for the first scholarship award. Luciano was chosen after three phases of review.
"Amelia's obvious passion for the game, coupled with a strong self-motivating nature, leapt from the pages of her application," USA Rugby Referee Department Director Ed Todd said. "We also liked her commitment to developing as a referee, and her references were very positive.
"Three referees have spent parts of rugby seasons with the Canterbury Referee Association in the past. Brian Zapp is now one of our top five referees, George O'Neil is a National 3 referee, and Brei Gussack is president of the Potomac Society. It requires a level of commitment to climb the ladder, even in the United States. Amelia will get that in New Zealand at this early stage of her career."
Though she will not have to worry about her Ph.D. studies while away, Luciano will commit to complete immersion in the New Zealand culture, including employment under the New Zealand Working Holiday Visa program, and will be expected to provide regular and continuous feedback on her experience. A full report will be turned in at the end, as well.
She enjoys it now, but Luciano said the early stages of switching from playing to officiating were tough.
"When I first started, all I wanted to do was hand the whistle off to someone else and grab my mouth guard," she said. "As I've been refereeing for longer, I am enjoying it more and more. It us much more mentally exhausting than playing and less physically draining.
"Of course, when I referee some men's games, I'm glad I'm not playing."
The Don Morrison Referee Fund is able to raise the bar and create international learning opportunities for up and coming referees like Amelia through generous contributions to USA Rugby Foundation. If you would like to support this worthwhile program, please visit the USA Rugby Foundation page.