The Allegheny union is making its first step toward naming its Midwest representatives, as the women’s DII colleges face off in their semifinals this weekend. The competition is shaping up like last year, with Pittsburgh, Slippery Rock and Indiana University of Pennsylvania all taking the top seeds out of their divisions.
Ranking these three teams is difficult. Last year, Pitt won the Allegheny title, but then lost 10-5 to IUP during the Midwest quarterfinals. Slippery Rock bowed out during the quarters as well after a 10-5 loss to eventual DII finalist Notre Dame, which now plays in DI.
Fortunately, since all three teams made it past the first round, Allegheny should retain three seeds to Midwests.
For Pittsburgh, these trips to territorial championships are more of a recent evolution in the team’s history. When Anthony Simasek took over as coach in 2009, the team had been finishing in the bottom half of the league. The team had been coached by a pair of Pittsburgh Angels, and when it was time to change hands, the former coaches asked their male counterparts to fill their roles.
Simasek had coached girls’ soccer before, but not rugby. He was pleasantly surprised to find the team averaging about 25 players on the roster, and even more so with the players’ eagerness to learn. After some success, the team now boasts 60 players on the roster and three coaches on staff.
“The attitude of the girls got better and they wanted to play higher-level rugby,” Simasek reflected. “We brought in some structure, and those two elements led to a growth in numbers.”
All three Allegheny headliners play in different divisions, and they’ve generally been crushing league opponents (exception being IUP’s 17-15 over West Virginia).
“It’s tough for us because of where we’re located,” Simasek explained. “We’re in western Pennsylvania but it’s like we’re an annex. MARFU thinks we’re out west; the Midwest thinks we’re out east, but we’re not that far from either. We’re stuck in our bubble.”
It isn’t until the Allegheny semifinals that the three top teams see some quality competition. Simasek supplemented the team’s fall schedule with games against women’s clubs, and makes sure there are two players competing for every position to keep players engaged.
Although Pitt has had much practice on defense this season, Simasek’s team has had plenty of time to work on its offensive patterns, which likes to keep play moving into space. The players offload in contact, insert forwards into the backline, and use their undersized yet agile physiques to outrun larger teams.
One player in particular who has really embraced Pitt’s style of place and recognized on the Midwest scene is inside center Jessie Young. She’s been having a fantastic year and leads the backs’ attack. Captain Chelsey Mitchell at second row has taken on a great leadership role in the pack. She leads by example, is a work horse around the field, in every ruck and maul, and tough in scrums and lineouts.
As a promising class of freshmen works its way into the lineup, Simasek has every reason to be excited about this year. He only lost four players from last year, and nearly all of the starters have returned. Those returners are equally excited for some retribution on the territorial stage.
“Our loss to IUP at Midwests last year has stuck with the players,” Simasek said. “It was a big step to win the conference last year, and the Midwest quarterfinal was the farthest that any of them had gone in their rugby careers. It was a big confidence boost, and they’ve set the goal of reaching the Midwest final four this year.”
Looking ahead to this weekend and the possibility of facing either IUP or Slippery Rock, Simasek said: They’re always very athletic. It’s a matter of recognizing where their athletes are and minimizing their impact.
After this weekend, the four semifinalists will return to play in the championship weekend and determine the top three seeds heading to Midwests.