Coach Robin MacDowell gets into the action alongside academy students on the Cowichan Secondary School field. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)

Coach Robin MacDowell gets into the action alongside academy students on the Cowichan Secondary School field. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)

Rugby academy at Cowichan Secondary aims to grow in second year

‘It feels like a big family’ say students from near and far

The MacDowell Rugby Academy at Cowichan Secondary hit the ground running in its first year of existence, and wants to keep up the momentum going into its second year.

The academy, which launched in September, has 37 students this year: over half from the Cowichan Valley, with the rest from across B.C. and Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. It is doubling capacity for the 2022-23 school year, hoping to have two groups. Recruitment for next year is now under way.

As it stands right now, mornings in the academy are focused on rugby, and students spend the afternoon in the classroom. With a second group year, half the students would be in the classroom in the morning and working on rugby in the afternoon.

The two aspects — academics and sports — are equally important at the academy, explains Robin MacDowell, a Cowichan Secondary grad who founded the academy as part of a rugby journey that has taken him all over the world as a player and coach.

“Being a development academy, the goal is to set them up for rugby careers and academics and life,” he says.

This year alone, academy students have fielded more than 30 recruitment calls from universities in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., and a number have had scholarship offers.

“The toughest decision they have to make, with their family, is what university to go to,” MacDowell relates.

As a direct result of their work at the academy, two students — Matthew Stewart and Reid Yurkowski — have gone on to play for the Canadian U18 men’s XV team, and another — Erica Kissinger — has played for the U.S. U18 women’s team.

“None of these athletes were on the national team radar until they were part of our program,” MacDowell states.

Last fall, athletes from the academy played for the Cowichan Rugby Football Club in various age groups, and this spring many of them will play with the Cowichan Secondary Thunderbirds rugby teams.

The academy is becoming increasingly linked with the club, the school and the local community. Academy assistant coach and mental skills coach Lauryn Bons has emerged as a key player for the Cowichan Piggies senior women’s side. Cowichan Secondary grad Will Piche, meanwhile, is working as strength and conditioning and forwards coach for the academy, and Maxine O’Leary, another former T-Bird now attending Concordia University in Montreal, was recently added as the academy’s marketing and communications coordinator.

“We are very excited to have alumni involved on the field and off the field,” MacDowell says. “Our goal is to continue developing Canadian coaches, supporting programs in the Cowichan Valley, and creating new job opportunities for local grads.”

This spring, academy members will be out in the community as part of Rookie Rugby and helping MacDowell promote rugby in elementary and middle schools. Some helped out at the Girls Can Rugby event hosted by the rugby club last Saturday.

Another Cowichan Secondary graduate, national sevens player Pat Kay, is one of several special guests who have made appearances to speak or help train. Other national program members to drop by have included Julia Folk, Carissa Norsten, Lucas Scheck and David Richards. Former Edmonton Oilers captain Andrew Ference has also spoken to the young athletes.

“The students are absolutely blown away by the people Robin is bringing in,” says Traci Hamilton, who taught MacDowell when he attended Cowichan Secondary and now serves as teacher liaison to the academy. “It’s just amazing: national players, international players.”

Hamilton has also been impressed with how far the student-athletes have come this year, in a variety of ways.

“It’s amazing to see the growth of the kids,” she says.

Judy Watson worked with MacDowell at his previous academy in Saskatchewan, and moved west to work as program coordinator when he returned to the Cowichan Valley. Part of her job is finding billet families in the Cowichan Valley who are willing to take in an out-of-town athlete and treat them as their own. Costs are covered by the academy, and there are nine families — including Watson’s — who are hosting athletes.

“We check in with them and make sure everybody is healthy and happy,” she explained. “It’s their home away from home. It’s really nice to know these kids have somewhere they can feel safe and have it feel like home.”

For more information on the billet program, contact Watson at

For students like Emma Turner and Bella Anderton-Teasdale, the Cowichan Valley already is home, but for the aforementioned Kissinger, coming here from Texas in her Grade 11 year was a big step

“It was hard coming here not knowing what I was getting into,” she admits. “But it feels like a big family.”

Grade 10 student Anderton-Teasdale has similar feelings, even though she hasn’t had to leave home to attend the academy.

“Being around people and coming so close with everyone, it’s like having a family at school,” she said.

Not all of the players are at the elite level, and some even entered the academy never having played rugby before. There’s room for all of them, the players emphasized. They all support and push each other to be better.

“It’s amazing to train with people who have different levels of experience,” said Turner, a Grade 12 student.

“No matter what skill level you’re at, everyone is supportive of it,” Anderton-Teasdale chimed in. “There’s no judgment.”