With little fanfare other than well wishes from friends of the players and coach, the Wayne State women’s rugby team loaded up a big red Arrow Stage Lines bus on a chilly Wednesday afternoon to prepare for the 30-hour journey to defend a national championship that has been theirs exclusively.
The Wayne State rugby program has built itself to where it is one of the top small-college collegiate rugby programs in the country. The women’s program, in particular, has been as dominant as any in recent memory, winning three 15-on-15 national titles in five years and dominating the 7-on-7 division as the only school to win the national title since the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) began 7-on-7 tournament play four years ago.
Coach Darrin Barner said the team’s thoughts as they make the journey east for this weekend’s national championships is simple – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“We’re going to stick with the same offense and defense and everything,” he said as the team prepared for takeoff Wednesday afternoon outside Rice Auditorium. “The pool we are in will definitely make us work to play our best to get some wins, and I’d like to think we can win our pool, but after that it’s going to be a pretty even race for the top eight teams.”
Sixteen teams are competing in this weekend’s tournament, and they are split up into four pools, each with four teams. Games are 14 minutes long, and the top two teams in each pool will advance to the knockout round, with quarterfinals on Saturday and the semifinals and championship on Sunday.
Games will be broadcast on NSCRO’s website (http://www.nscro.org), and the Wildcats will open play against William & Mary at 9 a.m. Central time. They will also face New York-Rochester and York College out of Pennsylvania in pool play.
Barner said it will be very important for the Wildcats to come out strong early and try to get a win in their first game.
“We need to be focused, because you don’t want to lose that first game of the day,” he said. “It means you’ll pretty much have to win six in a row after that to win the title, so we want to come out firing right away.”
The Wildcats will kick off Saturday with a team that is almost a mirror image of the one that won last year’s championship down in Charlotte, N.C. Six of the seven starters from that team will be in the lineup for the Wildcats this weekend, including Faith Sorensen, who was MVP of the team’s 15-on-15 championship team that won back in November.
“We pretty much have everybody back except Jasmine Kovacs, who were like our Magic Johnson with her ability to lead the team and draw defenders in to create overlaps,” Barner said. “The other girls are all back, so the big thing that concerns me is being able to handle the ball in wet weather, which is what we may be looking at there this weekend.”
Barner said the team should be familiar with competing in adverse conditions, as both last year’s 7-on-7 team and the recent 15-on-15 squad both won championship games on rainy days. He said they spent a rainy Tuesday practicing and handling wet balls to get a feel for competing in the rain.
Barner said that with returning players like Sorensen, Alex Feely, Kelsey Stutzman, Turner McPhee, Shelby Brown and Sam Walton back from last year, the Wildcats will have a great nucleus to build around.
Barner said that Leanna Rosburg has come in and performed well as Kovacs’ replacement, and young players like Al Hirschenbrock could play a key role in the team’s success this weekend.
Barner said that Wayne State is one of several teams who could come away with the championship. Colorado College was last year’s runner-up and returns a strong lineup, along with Lee Univesrity, Endicott, Colgate (who Wayne State beat in last fall’s 15-on-15 championship) and California schools like St. Mary’s and Claremont College.
Of course, as the three-time defending national champions, Barner understands that all 15 teams will no doubt want to be the one that knocks his team from its perch – but he insists his team is ready for the challenge.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a burden, but everybody knows that we’re facing teams who look at us as a program that’s won six national championships, so we won’t be sneaking up on anybody,” he siad. “We know that they’re going to come and give their best effort every time we play. Being the defending champions can be a burden, but we’re going to use it to our advantage and try to bring another title home to Wayne.”