In 2012, Rugby Magazine named the Norwich vs. Washington State DII championship semifinal the women’s game of the year. Many regarded that match as the true title bout, and WSU has returned to Palo Alto, Calif., to claim that trophy in 2013. The Cougars are heavily favored to go all the way, but that doesn’t mean the weekend will belong to Washington State.
The match we’re most excited to watch is Winona State vs. Quinnipiac in the semifinals. Winona have experience on their side, having advanced to last year’s DII final. They’ve continued their dominating ways throughout the 2012-13 season and encountered little resistance in their return trip to Stanford. Quinnipiac lacks that experience; however, they’ve played some more competitive (i.e., closer) matches, and being only two years old, have the element of surprise on their side.
When the Hamden, Conn., team played their first league game in fall 2011, they resembled many college sides: Began with 60 walk-ons, whittled down to 30, and then retained a core group of 12 who were dedicated to the sport. Everyone was a rookie, and that first season ended with a 3-6-1 record, which met the expectations of head coach Becky Carlson and her first-year team.
“During my peer interview at Quinnipiac, many of the other coaches had asked about my plans for the program,” Carlson reflected. “I said that I hoped, within a few seasons, to be among the top five in the nation and vye for a national championship. There weren’t too many of my peers who believed me at the time.”
But the student athletes didn’t want to wait a few seasons. After their first year concluded, the players sat down with coaches and decided they wanted the conference and national titles, now. Pleasantly surprised, the coaches laid out the pathway toward drastic improvement, and also upped the recruitment effort.
An NCAA varsity sport, Quinnipiac has the ability to offer scholarships. The Bobcats acquired one of the more exciting players to grace the pitch this year – Florida’s Natalie Kosko, a former gymnast, who played with the USA 7s Stars & Stripes in Las Vegas last February. Elisa Cuellar (Sebastian River, Fla.) and Shannon Durkin (Bishop O'Dowd, Calif.), both of whom had some rugby experience to their credits, also bolstered the roster.
“We’ve added a mix of talented rugby players and crossover athletes who’ve been recruited,” Carlson said, “but this [team success] has truly been a collective effort. The core of 12 is a testament to them practicing six days a week, weight training, strength and conditioning. They really enjoy playing with each other and want to win.”
The team saw results immediately. The wins started to add up as the Bobcats worked through the inaugural regular season of the new Tri-State Conference. Confidence was buliding, but it wasn’t until their game against Vassar that Quinnipiac really started to believe that something special was coalescing.
Several players were out of position due to injury, and Kosko was playing in her first game since recovering from a foot injury. At one point, Quinnipiac found themselves down three players, defending their own five-meter for what seemed like an eternity.
“There’s not much you can do as a coach at that point; that’s all guts,” Carlson remembered. “Vassar didn’t score. That game lit a fire under them; it was amazing. They just looked at each other and saw their starting lineup right there – and that’s the way it’s been ever since.”
Quinnipiac had developed these t-shirts together that simply read: Believe. Carlson told her squad that if they believed in each other, then anything was possible; and once the team displayed that trust, they’d earn the right to wear those shirts. They donned those “Believe” t-shirts with pride after the Vassar game.
The Bobcats didn’t cruise to the conference title or through national playoffs, not like the way Washington State or Winona have. Albany proved a worthy opponent in the fall, playing Quinnipiac to two tough games during league and for the conference title. In the Round of 16, the Connecticut side took a half to adjust to the tempo of play and intensity at the breakdown against Lee. Battling back from a deficit and weathering the anxiety of a score-trading match, Quinnipiac pulled through with a 25-20 victory.
“We were prepared for this,” Carlson said of Lee and Appalachian State, Quinnipiac’s quarterfinal opponent. “You continue in this tournament and you’re going to see better teams, a higher level of athleticism. I told the players, ‘There’s going to be a time when you get scored on, and you’re standing in the try zone with this unfamiliar feeling. But how you bounce back from that is going to prove what kind of team you are.’”
But the rapid success hasn’t gone to the team’s head. They’ve earned the confidence that results from hard work and shared successes and trials, but they’re also embracing that “good kind of nervous,” according to Carlson, that wards off complacency.
“There’s an incredible amount of humility that comes with it,” Carlson said of the team’s achievements. “Yes, you go out there with a feeling of confidence that you’re going to win, but you still approach every game as a championship game.”
Now, it’s reality. Quinnipiac will play in the program’s highest-stake game tomorrow against Winona, and the winner will very likely see Washington State in the final Saturday.