Nearly every team can remember a “golden year,” when everything seemed to come together at the right time. Those eras are even more precious when success is realized after some hardship, and the Appalachian State women fall firmly into that category. After a couple of years as one of the South DII’s top teams, AHO has battled back to the Round of 16, and they still have a lot to play for.
Appalachian State garnered national attention when they qualified for their first Round of 16 last year. The team only lost two players from that squad and entered fall 2012 eager to improve on their performance. But then a team tragedy inspired players and reinvigorated their motivation.
“This is, indeed, is a special year for the women,” said AHO coach Dr. Ken Muir, who’s been at the helm since the team’s inception 14 years ago. “In September we learned that one of our second-year players had ovarian cancer. Her doctors say she is doing very well, and she is no longer undergoing chemo treatment. The team has coalesced around her based on her courage, and from her battle we have found strength and motivation.”
During the fall, AHO bettered DI teams Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia Tech, North Carolina State, East Carolina and DII well-knowns like Lee University and UNC Charlotte. The team continued their undefeated year into the matrix season and beyond, but spring proved calamitous. One might not associate the South with winter weather issues; however, AHO is located in the mountains, and weather is very unpredictable. The team only had two outdoor practices before the league season began.
Three of AHO’s games were cancelled – two from Western Carolina, which hadn’t realized they were placed into a conference and therefore hadn’t planned for a spring season; and one from UNCC, which cited numbers issues the evening before the game was to be played. As a result, the team went an entire month without playing a rugby game.
Nonetheless, AHO won their pool of the Carolinas Conference easily, and prepared for rival College of Charleston in the conference final and bid to the Round of 32.
“We were a little nervous heading into playoffs,” AHO captain Stephanie Smith said, “but it lit a fire under our ass. We were tired of not playing and really wanted to play the sport that we all love.”
That attitude helped Appalachian State to a tight win over CoC. The next step was Mary Washington in the Round of 32, a game that occurred last Saturday.
“We came out ready to play against Mary Washington,” Smith said. “The fact they were ranked #4 in the nation was thrown around, but we didn’t let that phase us, and we just played AHO rugby. We did a very good job of putting pressure on them quickly and supporting our own players. We played very aggressively and gave it all out that whole 80 minutes.”
Mary Washington posed some problems in the breakdowns as well as out wide. The AHO defense stepped up, answered back in the rucks, and slid across the field to quell the sideline attack. By day’s end, Smith, Kasey Furphy, Chelsea Vinson and Lyndsie White (2) scored tries, while Victoria Wiener added a conversion for the 27-12 win.
“The Mary Washington players were gracious in defeat and played hard until the end,” Muir said. “I think our advantage on the field was with the pack setting up phase after phase of rucking play that allowed our backs to get into open spaces. Mary Washington's pressure came from their backs, especially No. 11, but our forwards took control of the game in the second half. We scored two quick tries to make it 20-5, and I think that took the air out of their sails.”
And now AHO is poised for their second consecutive trip to the Round of 16, and the squad is feeling good about their chances against SUNY Albany, which defeated American University on the road 31-17 last weekend.
“Our team chemistry is amazing, and I think that is part of the reason we have been so successful,” Smith said. “Having so many returning players, we have a really easy time reading each other and working well together on the field. I think this is one of the strongest and most talented group of 15s we've had in three years, so I think that is what makes this year so special.”
"We are lucky this year to have an additional coach helping us,” Muir added. “Rob Benyon is a visiting professor from South Africa, and he has brought a new energy to the team and has helped me out in countless ways. That said, this year's team is a perfect storm of seasoned veterans and people who also played high school rugby in North Carolina.”
One edge that Appalachian State has over Round of 16 opponent Albany is that they’ve been to the national tournament before. They’re familiar with the pressure and requisite mentality needed in the post-season.
“We have been preparing for this all year and have been working hard to be in the position we are in,” Smith said. “We have a saying on our team that we started using during the fall season, ‘Stay hungry, stay humble.' We need to come into every game confidently but not cocky. Be confident in our ability and ready to fight without coming in complacent and cocky.”
“There’s a mix of excitement and nerves, and that's the way I want them to feel,” Muir said in advance of this Saturday's game. “They are prepared and confident, but they also realize the quality of rugby is going to start increasing exponentially from here on out. They have earned everything thus far through hard work and dedication. Assistant coach Rob and I only try and point them in the right direction, and they deserve all of the credit for where they are right now.”