Women's College

Written by Jackie Finlan    Wednesday, 04 December 2013 23:35    PDF Print Write e-mail
Norwich, the Team to Beat at Nationals
Colleges - Women's College

If there's any team with a bull's eye on its back, it's Norwich. Three-time reigning 7s champion and DI finalist last spring, Norwich is the favorite heading into the American Collegiate Rugby Association (ACRA) DI championship. But this fall season has been anything but ordinary, even for the team that seems impossible to beat.

Ally Day for Norwich. (David Orrick photo)

Firstly, Norwich showed that it isn’t impossible to beat. After playing the Vermont team to a 20-point loss – a point differential that Norwich rarely experiences during the regular season – American International College pushed the Cadets to a 19-15 quarterfinal during the ACRA playoffs.

“The AIC game was crucial for the mental growth of our team,” Norwich captain Rose Bernheim said. “We had to reevaluate our play and adjust our strategy during the game, which isn't necessarily ideal, but an important skill to learn. After the game, we realized we had some deficiencies in our mental toughness. AIC challenged us physically and tactically. They pushed us in ways we hadn't been pushed before, causing us to make errors and resulting in penalties against us. We needed that kind of the game. It wasn't perfect and everything didn't fall into place. We had to make a decision on that pitch to keep our heads up and grind it out together, or lose confidence in ourselves and regress to individual efforts. I attribute our win to the former; we chose to fight it out. It was an important game for us as rugby players and young adults. We needed to learn that we can't waste time trying to control things outside of our jurisdiction. We can only control our game and what we do as individuals and as a team.”

AIC had a very specific game plan in mind when taking on Norwich that second time, so the game was also beneficial in terms of playing an educated team. The Cadets are no longer anonymous, and are well documented, and good opponents will continue to take the field more prepared.

“I think our biggest difference in terms of players' attitudes this year has been our calmness under pressure,” Bernheim said. “That's an attitude unique to this year's team. As a product of the high-intensity game we like to play, sometimes in past years we've had a tendency to get ahead of ourselves and lose control over ourselves and our game. This year I think we've done an excellent job of maintaining a level head no matter the circumstances and continuing to play our game, regardless of the score, opponent or referee.”

Norwich's veterans - from scrumhalf Emily Oor, to Bernheim herself, and All Americans Baylee Annis, Joya Clark and Ally Day - will provide a foundation for the Cadets this weekend, but stay on the lookout for a few new, bright faces, which emerged during USA Rugby’s College 7s Championship. Bernheim confirmed that those players have been making an impact all season.

“In the forwards, I think Riley Blankenship and Valerie McGuire will be the ones you should watch,” Bernheim said. “Riley's currently in her second year of rugby and has immense potential. She's developed her field vision and is significantly more confident with and without the ball than last year. Offensively, she's powerful and has great hands. Defensively, she's one of the hardest hitters on the team. Val is also an excellent asset to the team. She's been playing rugby for a few years and is one of the smartest players on the team. She's dynamic offensively and a powerhouse on defense. She's stepped up in a big way this year as a starting lock and has proven essential to our forward pack.”

In the backs, look for flyhalf Hannah Bell and center Emily Colesworthy to add some pop to the Cadets' always-dangerous attack.

“Hannah has owned the number 10 jersey this year,” Bernheim continued. “She had big shoes to fill after Emily Baugus, our captain and flyhalf, graduated last year. I distinctly remember her telling me that she was going to make that position hers, and indeed, she fulfilled that promise. Hannah is immensely talented. She's a phenomenal teammate and an incredibly hard worker. She's the epitome of Norwich rugby: fit, fast and physical. Emily, like Riley and Val, has stepped up in a big way this year. She's also speedy, but her greatest skill is her ability to see space before it's even there. By the time she's got the ball, she's already beaten the defender because of her superb positioning.”

Some new challenges, some new faces, but we might also see a better Norwich. Like its Final Four compatriots, the Cadets are able to compete in a championship preceded by a proper league build-up. This is an opportunity for the teams to put their best foot forward when the stakes are at their highest.

“It's a long process and one that requires the team to balance intensity with rest in order to be successful,” Bernheim said of the singular 15s season. “Skill and fitness wise, I think we're at our peak. We're in a good place mentally and ready to take the pitch with the best teams in the country to play for a national championship.”

Norwich will face Northern Iowa in the semifinals, to take place at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 7, in Auburndale, Fla. All of the games will be live broadcast via RugbyMag.com's YouTube channel; stay tuned for exact weblink.

Written by Jackie Finlan    Wednesday, 04 December 2013 12:33    PDF Print Write e-mail
Kutztown Women Break Onto National Stage
Colleges - Women's College

It’s wasn’t too long ago that Kutztown was relegated from Eastern Penn’s women’s college DII. The team bottomed out in fall 2010, going almost two seasons without a coach after a series of non-committal ones. But the team turned it around, secured a Kutztown alum as coach, regrouped in EPRU’s DIII, and spent the last three years working toward a program benchmark: the American Collegiate Rugby Association (ACRA) championships.

Leala	Godinet swings the ball away from Stonehill. (Photo courtesy of Kutztown)
Tabetha Super offloads the ball during the ACRA Round of 16. (Photo courtesy of Kutztown)
Kutztown forwards secure the ball against Bowdoin. (Photo courtesy of Kutztown)

Kutztown was in bad shape when Sean Cobb came onto the scene in spring 2011. Having played for KU from 1997-2002, then served as assistant coach from 2005-2010, Cobb was accustomed to the standard of the men’s team.

“There was a lot of athletic talent, but no real understanding of the game or organization as a club,” Cobb recalled his first impressions of the women's team. “That first semester was a little rough. There was a little distrust with me considering how many coaches they’d gone through, and I had never coached women before. There was a lot of feel back and forth, a learning curve for both of us, but we had a much better feeling for each other after that.”

Once Cobb earned the team’s trust, he started to shift the team’s social nature to a more competitive one. That summer, Cobb and the newly elected captains constructed a 46-page manual that outlined the expectations of every player, and detailed the consequences of failing to meet them. He emphasized practice attendance, added two extra sessions per week, enlisted a strength and conditioning coach, and the team started to see results. Kutztown went undefeated in the regular season, eventually losing to Millersville in the playoffs, but it was that performance that saw the team fully buy-in to Cobb’s more disciplined, committed brand of club.

It might have been a hard sell to get back into the EPRU’s DII, but 2012 saw the formation of college conferences. Cobb was in on the ground floor as the Mid-Atlantic Rugby Conference (MARC) gelled, and this was the opportunity to get Kutztown back into DII.

“It took some convincing,” Cobb said of that transition period with the team. “I wanted to make the move to DII, because we’ve always had the athletes to be competitive and now was our opportunity. The girls were nervous because they had played Lock Haven [a MARC powerhouse] the season prior and took a beating. It was a heated discussion.”

Cobb’s faith wasn’t misplaced, and Kutztown has advanced to the last two MARC championships. KU faced Lock Haven in 2012 and lost 8-7. This year, KU took on Shippensburg, and lost 43-41.

“Back-to-back championship losses are tough to deal with,” Cobb said.

Fortunately for Kutztown, MARC received two spots in ACRA’s Round of 32. In fact, since the conference championship overlapped with ACRA’s first round of playoffs, both Shippensburg and Kutztown received byes directly to the Sweet 16s.

“The girls were looking to me during the week leading up to Stonehill College, asking what to expect from a New England team,” Cobb said of Kutztown’s Round of 16 opponent. “We don’t necessarily play a fast, up-tempo game; we’re grinders. We were concerned that other teams would be faster, so we had the men’s team play touch 7s with us, so the girls got used to chasing faster opponents.”

On the opening kickoff, Stonehill flanker Sarah Buonopane returned the receipt for a 70-meter try. By 18 minutes in, Stonehill led 15-5.

“There was this look of, ‘What did we get ourselves into,’” Cobb remembered the players' initial reaction. “The captains, Faith Hughes and Leala Godinet, and our president, No. 8 Victoria Peitzman, pulled the girls back together, saying, ‘They’re not better than us. We worked hard to get here.’ And that turned the game on its head. Twenty minutes in, the game hadn’t gotten away from us yet.”

KU went onto score five tries during the remaining 20 minutes of the half and ended the game with a 53-20 victory.

It rained overnight, so when Kutztown and Bowdoin faced each other in the quarterfinals, the field was slick but not muddy.

“It did just enough to slow the game down; for my girls, there’s no other way to play,” Cobb said of the tight game that evolved. “Bowdoin didn’t have size, but they had muscle mass. They pushed us around in the set pieces a bit and in the forward pack. They seemed to want to bang with us in the forwards then get the ball to their 10 and let her make decisions. We did well to get in her face and pressure, forcing some errant kicks. We did not play the fanciest of rugby; in fact I’d call it a rucking practice.”

Defense ending up producing the 15-5 win. The victory was a sheer triumph but produced an unfortunate result: Flyhalf Mary Cate Matta left the game 20 minutes in with a torn ACL.

“She’s been a starter for us since she joined, except for her first game, and she’s a huge part of our game,” Cobb said. “Her loss is a detriment to our team. She gives us kicking and penalty options that no one else can give, and we have to adjust our system now.”

That extra pressure will on the shoulders of players like scrumhalf Sharyn Beodeker, whom Cobb compares to a female Mike Petri.

“Our defense wouldn’t be nearly as good without her,” Cobb said. “She’s always coordinating players into the right spots. And she’s an extension of me on offense; we have similar rugby brains. We started together and have a great connection. When I want to run a system, she knows it before I do. Twenty minutes into a game, she knows where to attack and where not, who to take on and not.”

Keep an eye on lock Faith Hughes, as well. She was invited to an U20 women’s camp during her first year of rugby and has grown immensely.

“Faith is one of the most powerful women I’ve ever met,” Cobb said of the forwards captain. “She has the ability to change the game on one run. She’s really big, really strong, and unbelievably fast for her size, and physical in contact. She knows when to pick and choose; she’s super competitive and has a lot of gas in the tank.”

Godinet is the backs captain and only rejoined the team mid-season after an ACL tear. She’s actually playing flanker. She’s a former javelin and high jump scholarship athlete, is smart and physical in attack, and brings a great stiff-arm into action.

Kutztown will undoubtedly play its toughest competitor to date, Winona State, in the ACRA semifinals Saturday.

“I feel like we’re playing a mirror image of ourselves, except Winona’s scorelines are bigger,” Cobb said. “But as a team that is used to scoring a lot of points, they’re not used to being on the back foot, and could lose it if we put on the pressure. Our defense is about organizing at the right place and right time, and living to play another day. I have all the confidence in the girls and in Sharyn to put people in the right situations. This isn’t going to be another game where we can have a defensive lapse and make it up later.”

Kutztown and Winona will meet at 9 a.m. EST on Saturday, Dec. 7. The games will be live broadcast on RugbyMag.com’s YouTube channel. Stay tuned for the exact weblink.

Written by Jackie Finlan    Tuesday, 03 December 2013 19:24    PDF Print Write e-mail
Notre Dame College Ends 1st Season at Nationals
Colleges - Women's College

Notre Dame College is enjoying a storybook season. The South Euclid, Ohio, women’s team is competing in this weekend’s American Collegiate Rugby Association (ACRA) DII championship, after only its first competitive season. But there’s no secret as to how this private school advanced to the top: NDC is a varsity, school funded and supported program, with a paid coach and assistants, and rugby scholarships on the table.

Notre Dame College powering through Kent State. (Regis Rudman photo)
Regis Rudman photo
Regis Rudman photo

It was the college itself that requested the formation of men’s and women’s teams. The school approached Brian McCue (now NDC Director of Rugby and men's head coach) and Mark Andrade in July 2012 and wanted a team up and running by August. The men’s program was able to get off the ground in that time, but the women’s team struggled with recruitment initially – finding only one player who had ever played rugby before – but corralling a bunch of talented crossover athletes on campus. The team forewent any conference competition that season.

The team competed in tournaments during the spring, and the coaching staff concerted their efforts on recruiting for fall 2013. Andrade followed the Ohio Elite as they competed in Indiana and Pennsylvania, and got some hits that way. But it was the machine of the Internet that really started funneling players NDC’s way.

“We started to get our name out there via social media,” Andrade explained. “We had a lot of interest, but being a private school, it takes more than scholarships to get the girls in.”

Ohio was still well represented: Ohio Elite’s Brittany Kapsalis started her rugby education at Ohio powerhouse Lakewood High School; Lea Walsh joined after graduating from the Parma program; and spring transfer Hannah Long, also from Ohio Elite, passed up Ohio State when offered a rugby scholarship.

The out-of-staters have been making an impact, too. Hooker Kayla Rudman from Fullerton, Calif., was part of the DII high school championship team and had also played for the Southern California Griffins age grade teams; a year older, Hannah Gauthreaux transferred from Cal State Fullerton and introduced more speed with her track background; and Rebecca Swainson came all the way from New Zealand after her coach came across the scholarship-offering program online.

The team is all freshmen and sophomores, save one senior in her first year on the team, and at least 50% of players have two years or more of rugby experience.

Unfortunately for Notre Dame College, the DII Ohio league it was meant to join dismantled, so the program decided to compete as independent. Andrade loaded the schedule with Mid-America Conference DI teams – all of which were DII the year prior – and crushed them.

“We were nervous going into it,” Andrade said of the fall season. “There was only one team that wasn’t DI [on our schedule]. The girls proved they were able to handle that conference. They worked hard and are confident, but it wasn’t as tough as I thought it would be.”

Notre Dame College earned an at-large bid to the ACRA DII Round of 32, and the apprehension continued.

“We were nervous about the Round of 32 and Grand Valley State, especially when we saw their record and considered their experience,” Andrade said of the Great Lakes Conference champion. “We just didn’t have that experience. But the team proved me wrong and had a great outing.”

NDC blanked Grand Valley 45-0.

Notre Dame College made a good impression on the DII field, but the Round of 32 was the last of the bulldozing.

“In the Sweet 16 at Denison, we were confident after our shutout win against Grand Valley, and then we saw Shippensburg,” Andrade said of the team’s quarterfinalist opponent and Mid-Atlantic conference champion. “They came out with 30-something girls, all dressed in uniform, and we finally saw a team that was coming on with game faces, had their routine down, and was ready to play. We were used to playing games where teams had a hard time coming up with 15 players – more of a college club. When we got to this tournament, we immediately saw that the teams were more disciplined and better coached.”

NDC took that shock in stride and beat Shippensburg 38-5, and then prepared for its toughest game thus far: Ithaca College out of New York.

“The biggest difference was the rucking and continuity,” Andrade compared the regular-season and post-season opponents on the pitch. “When we got to Shippensburg and Ithaca, they knew how to ruck and weren’t afraid to ruck hard. It started to rain during our Elite 8 game, and it was hard to advance because Ithaca were better ruckers. We couldn’t run much on the outside.

“It’s hard to describe our style,” Andrade added. “We’re very well balanced. We do have a lot of speed, but we have some decent size in the forwards, and they have great fundamentals. But ideally, we want to get the ball to the outside and run.”

NDC pulled off a dramatic one-point win, 23-22, to advance to the Final Four in Florida. With three weeks to prepare, Notre Dame rushed back to the practice pitch to address some of the weaknesses in their game.

“To say the least, we have been focusing on rucking,” Andrade confirmed. “We don’t want them to control the ball on us. Defensively, we’ve been working on having a good, solid line. If a team is going to out-ruck us, then we just don’t want to overcommit to that ruck, and instead post up and catch them on the next phase, hoping to capitalize on the other team’s mistakes.”

NDC will face Vassar on Saturday, and Andrade is relying on a few key players to lead the team into battle: flanker captain Maddy Goodwin, captain and No. 8 Long, speedster Gauthreaux, and young flyhalf Walsh. As long as those players have good games, then Andrade is confident that the team will be alright.

“Every week it was registering a bit more, and now every day it’s registering more,” Andrade said of the team’s collective understanding of the significance of nationals. The team will write their own definition of championship play in a few days, and regardless of the outcome, it’s been a remarkable first season for Notre Dame College.

All of the DI and DII semifinals will be live webcast via RugbyMag.com’s YouTube channel; stay tuned for the specific link.

Saturday, December 7
9 a.m. - DII Semifinal: Winona State vs. Kutztown
11 a.m. - DII Semifinal: Vassar vs. Notre Dame College
1 p.m. - DI Semifinal: Norwich vs. Northern Iowa
3 p.m. - DI Semifinal: Navy vs. Army

Sunday, December 8
10 a.m. - DI/DII 3rd place games
12 p.m. - DII Final
2 p.m. - DI Final

Written by Jackie Finlan    Tuesday, 03 December 2013 16:48    PDF Print Write e-mail
Final Four a First for UNI
Colleges - Women's College

Auburndale, Fla., plays host to the inaugural American Collegiate Rugby Association (ACRA) championships. The top four DI and DII women’s colleges will convene this weekend and christen the new league’s record books. The DI semifinalists are all familiar names, but this Final Four appearance will mark one program’s high-water mark.

UNI co-captain Crystal Nye will lead the Panthers into attack. (Photo courtesy of UNI)

Northern Iowa has dominated DI Midwest rugby in recent memory, but the Panthers have only breached the Elite 8 twice: lost to UC Davis in 2005 and BYU in 2009.

“This is the best we’ve ever had, for the simple fact that there’s no drop-off from one to 22,” Northern Iowa coach Steve Murra said. “We’ve had better rugby players in certain positions, but haven’t been this good top to bottom.”

UNI is veteran heavy, with six of seven seniors starting (two are five-years) and a bevy of Midwest U23 tour-goers and MW U19s ratcheting up the experience. Captains Megan Flanigan (inside center), Crystal Nye (flanker) and Becca Brown (No. 8) will anchor the squad.

UNI will have to regroup once this class graduates, but the program is in better shape than years prior. The rugby team was recently reclassified under “athletics” from “club sports” and that has opened up the program to trainers, varsity facilities and other support and amenities that help teams operate more professionally. Evolutions like that have already helped recruitment.

“Freshman Eileen Lieb, a flanker, is someone to watch,” Murra said of the Catholic Memorial High School (Wisc.) graduate and the type of difference-maker he wants to attract. “I saw her at last year’s high school nationals, and she was the MVP of the game we watched. I met her parents on the sidelines, chatted with them and got her to come to us.

“She’s the last of 15 kids, so we already knew a couple of things before meeting her,” Murra added. “Her family is basically a rugby team. She knows about sacrifice, hard work, those sorts of things. … She’s a little kid with a lot of fire and had to fight her way onto the field. … I see her as a future leader.”

Olivia Frey was another important recruit for Murra. The prop captained Armstrong, Minnesota’s best high school team, at the high school nationals. She was to make her debut this fall but suffered an injury during the summer, keeping her off the field.

Injuries have ruled out a couple of key players from playing this season, but personnel has not been UNI’s biggest barrier this year; competition has. Even through the Elite 8, the Panthers went unchallenged as they toppled Kent State 83-7 then Air Force 51-0.

“There were no surprises in the playoffs,” Murra said. “I know so many of these kids and coaches. It’s not necessarily easy to prepare, but you get stuck in a rut and expect the same things. Our best game was against Air Force (in the Round of 8). I don’t want to say we played a perfect game, but we played a pretty good game. ... I wish we would have played tighter games, especially when I look at the East Coast – Norwich, Navy and Army all played tighter games."

Murra has done his best to prepare his team for Norwich in the semifinals. The UNI men’s team has joined the women’s team at their indoor practices and played the role of the Cadets during sessions. The coaching staff has watched a lot of video and gone out of their way to gather information on Norwich. Murra is finalizing their game plan tonight and will disseminate a 3-4 page document detailing as much to the team.

UNI heads into the final rounds of playoffs prepared, confident, and equally as important, healthy.

“Win or lose Saturday, we want the kids to be at their best physically,” Murra said. “We want them healthy, so we can put the best product out on the field.”

The Panthers will need to be at their best as they take on the top-ranked team in the league. The games kick off at 9 a.m. EST, and RugbyMag.com will be broadcasting the games live via its YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/RUGBYMagazine1

Written by Jackie Finlan    Monday, 18 November 2013 16:58    PDF Print Write e-mail
AIC Scares Norwich in Quarterfinals
Colleges - Women's College

Certainly one of the shockers of the season, American International College nearly knocked off Norwich University during ACRA’s DI college playoffs last weekend. The forerunner for the DI title, the Cadets held off the Yellow Jackets to a 19-15 victory during yesterday’s quarterfinals and – just barely – qualified for the national semifinals on Dec. 7 in Auburndale, Fla.

Emily Oor scored the stay-ahead points for Norwich over AIC. (David Orrick photo)

The two teams had met during the regular season, with Norwich prevailing 39-19. The 20-point loss turned heads AIC’s way, however, as that scoreline was Norwich’s most competitive all season, even better than Army’s. The rematch unfurled on Sunday, after Norwich first defeated Syracuse 70-20, and AIC bettered Brown 34-0 in Saturday’s Round of 16. Norwich was able to rest its starters a bit more, having built a 51-0 halftime lead and emptying the bench in the second stanza. AIC isn’t as deep, and nine of its starters are freshmen (although Cassidy Meyers and Megan Pinson can hardly be considered untested). AIC also has one of the most prolific college players in the game right now: Jess Davis.

Initially, it appeared that Norwich was going to exert its will on AIC, as fullback Rose Bernheim scored two minutes into the game and flyhalf Hannah Bell’s conversion gave the Cadets a 7-0 lead. Fewer than three minutes later, sophomore center Ally Day scored, and Norwich was up 12-0.

AIC gathered itself, and at the 18th minute mark was finally rewarded with a Davis try. The rest of the half went silent in terms of the scoreboard, but the Eagle prop struck again two minutes in the second half, 12-10 to Norwich.

“We knew that Norwich had strong runners, which they like to utilize by keeping the field spread and moving the ball across it with a wide passing game and support,” Denham delved into AIC’s game strategy. “Those wide passes are actually difficult to make in general though, and even more difficult under pressure. Knowing that, we put up a lot of defensive pressure, preventing them from being able to move the ball wide and forcing a lot of knock-ons.” 

The game-winning points came in the 48th minute, when Norwich scrumhalf Emily Oor ran in Norwich’s third try, which Bell converted for the 19-10 lead. Five minutes later, AIC closed the gap to four points, as Domonique Cammock scored the Yellow Jackets’ third try, 19-15.

The ball game was far from over, and AIC dominated the rest of the game in terms of possession and territory. Norwich, however, was unflappable on defense and repelled AIC’s attempts at the line. Norwich’s collective experience – and therefore, composure – in these intense, higher-level games outweighed AIC’s, and that made a difference in the end.

“What is a little frustrating for us is that while we managed to dominate possession [68% AIC - 32%NU], our young side may have perhaps lacked the critical decision-making skills that come in time with experience to be able put down a few more tries,” Denham said. “We also had a couple of instances where we executed out attacking pattern beautifully, found the mismatch, but then our handling skills let us down at the finish, meters out from the try zone. These instances alone would have put our point count on the winning end, and that is extremely frustrating.” 

The game's outcome was frustrating, but Denham and team are pretty excited about their accomplishments this fall.

“It was a heartbreaker for sure,” Denham said. “Despite the score, the inside story of the game is so promising for AIC and very impressive for such a young group coming together in such a short period of time. I am really proud of what the girls have accomplished this season. … We are already looking at what we do next, and where things went wrong - those critical decisions. We are using this game as a massive opportunity for learning and growth.”

Norwich, Army, Navy and Northern Iowa are still in the hunt for the first-ever DI ACRA title and will sort it all out on Dec. 7-8. The seeds have yet to be released, so the semifinal match-ups are presently unknown. Norwich will be very busy in the interim, as the two-time defending 7s champion has taken an at-large bid to nationals this weekend (Nov. 23-24).


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