WOLFVILLE, NS - Harley Tucker burst onto the Acadia rugby scene a year ago with one of the best rookie seasons in the history of the program, culminating in a second-team all-Canadian selection at her position.
Her goals for her sophomore season are to improve on that performance, both for herself individually and more importantly, for the Axewomen team as a whole.
"Coming in here, I knew I wanted to improve my skills and strength," Tucker said in an Aug. 28 interview. "Making the all-Canadian team was more of a dream than a goal, and when it happened, it was a real pleasant surprise."
Tucker, who hails from Black Diamond, Alberta, a small town of 2,700 just south of Calgary, began playing rugby in Grade 8, at the age of 14.
"Our school wasn't large – there were about 60 in our grad class – but we had a rugby team, and two really good coaches, one of whom had played on the senior national team."
Growing up, Tucker was "a kid who had to be active in sports," she said.
"For a while, I had set my sights on playing basketball, but once I started playing rugby, I saw more opportunity to play at a high level," she said.
"I liked it 'enough' to begin with," but as she played more, "I really took to it. I found it empowering, and liked that it made me feel confident and strong."
When she first started playing rugby, she lacked experience and "took more of a supporting role." As time went on, she gained confidence and embraced a leadership position.
Tucker played for the Calgary Hornets, a club program with teams at various levels – in fact, she said, "I still play for them in the summers."
By the time she was 15 or 16, she was "playing up" with the U-18 team. She has pretty much played up a division ever since, and this past summer, was invited to play for the women's U-20 national team in a Can-Am series against the U.S. in Ottawa.
"My mother was always worried I'd get hurt," playing with and against older women, "but I've always felt very comfortable out there. I've played for the Hornets' senior team for the past two years."
Asked how she ended up at Acadia, Tucker explained that after she made the 'long list' for the U-18 national team, she received a call from rugby Axewomen head coach Matt Durant.
"I never had a real recruiting trip," she said. "I hadn't actually seen the (Acadia) campus until I arrived for training camp a year ago. Since then, I'd have to say I've fallen in love with it. I have absolutely no regrets over my choice to come here for school."
But, she says, in the beginning, she was "king of intimidated."
"I knew Acadia had a really good team, and a standard of excellence. It took me a bit of time to get comfortable, but as training camp went on, I started to come out of my shell."
She ended up scoring one try last season, though her position – lock, or second row – isn't necessarily conducive to high scoring. The Axewomen were second behind St. F.X. in the regular season, and reached the AUS final before losing to the eventual U Sport champion X-Women.
"I was really happy with my year," Tucker said, which included a conference all-star selection.
"I didn't expect to make second team All-Canadian, which made me feel pretty good. I saw it as a tribute to my work ethic, and it definitely made me feel good about my decision to come here. After that, I really knew I had made the right choice."
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She said she has been "really fortunate to be able to work with Elliott Richardson," the Acadia Athletics strength and conditioning coordinator, "who helped me achieve the goals I had."
Tucker was really looking forward to the 2017 season. After spending the summer playing senior rugby in Alberta, she arrived in Wolfville Aug. 24, just in time for the start of training camp Aug. 25.
She was "definitely well prepared" for camp this time around. Even after just one practice, she said, "I was feeling comfortable already."
In fact, she added, after only the fourth day of camp, "you can already see us learning to play together and feeding off each other. It's rare to see that quite this soon."
Part of taking on more of a leadership role for Tucker in her second season with the Axewomen includes taking on more of a mentorship role with Acadia's new players.
"I know how intimidating it was for me at first a year ago. The older players really reached out to welcome me. I want to do the same for the new players this year."
Acadia welcomes a talented group of first-year players this fall, but Tucker knows from experience that there is quite an adjustment to the university game for even the best high school players.
If everything comes together for this year's new players as it did for her a year ago, Tucker believes the Axewomen "will be able to perform to our full potential" and compete for the conference banner.
Personally, her goal is to make first-team All Canadian. After making the second team a year ago, "I know I can do better," she says.
Acadia "definitely has the capability of really competing with X," Tucker said. The regular season games between the two last seasons "were very competitive. Quite a few of our girls," particularly some of the new players, "are very strong and fast, and talented for their age."
Tucker is entering the second year of a degree program in kinesiology. Asked if she has been able to sample the full spectrum of campus life, she said, "so far, most of it has been rugby and classes. I don't want to get distracted. I have liked supporting the other Acadia teams. I take pride in being here, as all varsity athletes should."
She is hoping, and sooner than later, "to be able to fit working with the Acadia S.M.I.L.E. program into my schedule – and of course, intramurals. We had an intramural volleyball team last year, which was a way to be fun and competitive."
As for the future, Tucker would like to be a phys ed teacher.
"A lot of the phys ed teachers I've had directed me toward the rugby route. I want to be able to help young athletes discover their strengths, like my coaches did for me."
She is also interested in someday getting into coaching at some level. "The other thing I'd like to eventually be able to do," he said, "is to be a national coach."