Life’s Whitney Wilson /// Photo: KJ Feury
In its second season of playing 7s, Life University has claimed USA Rugby’s DI College 7s National Championship. The Running Eagles scored 184 points during its title run, but it was the tournament’s best team defense that produced six wins over three days.
“Ask any one of my players what my emphasis is, whether 7s or 15s, and they’ll tell you: defense,” Life University coach Ros Chou said. “I make selections based on who’s willing to play on defense and not shy away from contact. You’re more of a team player if you put your body on the line.
“We’re always working on our attack,” the coach added. “We’ve got good team speed and overall fitness, so if we can hold our opponent to zero, then all we need is three or five points, and we’re good.”
On Friday evening, Life shut out Texas A&M 52-0, and then finished pool play with wins against UVA (29-0) and Stanford (26-5) Saturday. The Marietta, Ga., team took the top seed into the Cup quarterfinals and faced #8 UVA for the second time that day, winning 41-5.
“From the beginning, even on the bus ride to Carolina, I could see how serious and excited – in a good way – they were,” Chou said of the team’s consistent enthusiasm. “They didn’t take any opponent lightly or look too far ahead, but they were all about stepping on the gas and not letting up.
“We had to improve on things along the way,” the coach reflected on the finals build-up. “Saturday we allowed two tries to go in, and there were some defensive spacing and assignments to address. Our pool play and quarterfinal games gave us the necessary data on how to continue to improve.”
The field’s mental fortitude was challenged on Sunday, as Tropical Storm Bonnie moved into town and pushed the schedule forward by a few hours. Life took the pitch against Stanford at 8:00 a.m. and won the Cup semifinal 26-0 in slippery conditions. Captain Nicole Strasko scored three tries, while championship MVP Kaitlyn Broughton added the fourth.
“This year we’ve worked a lot on our adaptability,” Chou said. “Our strength-and-conditioning coach does some of the wildest things possible – like bandaging up one arm or playing with one eye covered, or having to carry one person who can’t walk. Their reaction becomes: Throw anything at us; we’re fine with that.”
Life also had experience playing in wet conditions.
“Our first year, we had a problem with handling in the rain, and the players talked about it as a mental thing, that they weren’t going to do as well in the rain,” Chou explained. “So around the Atlanta 7s, since we didn’t know what the weather would be like, I had buckets of water at training and used hoses to douse the players. We worked on techniques to mitigate those conditions: having your hands more spread out; that it’s OK to catch the ball in your belly so long as you catch it; pushing harder with your elbow since you can’t use your wrist as much when it’s slippery.”
That skill and confidence helped Life against a very good Lindenwood University in the final. The Lions had a very tough road to the championship match and posted some impressive victories along the way. During pool play, Lindenwood beat Chico State 31-5, UNC 36-10 and Central Washington 7-5 in one of the top-three most thrilling games of the tournament. The St. Charles, Mo., squad then eliminated UC Davis 17-5 in the quarterfinals, and 2015 champion Penn State 19-12 in the semifinals.
The pair had played each other at the Atlanta Festival 7s and in the DI Elite quarterfinals this spring. Life had triumphed on those two occasions, but the teams proved well matched.
“We just keep pushing each other to get better,” Chou said. “I noticed they adjusted things from Atlanta – in the lineouts, for example, they defended us well there. And that forces us to go back to the drawing board.”
Life took a 5-0 lead into the break, as Megan Rom scored the half’s lone try.
“She is a really mobile prop, in 7s and 15s. She’s fast, she can pass, she scores tries and is a hard ballcarrier,” Chou said of the complete player. “She really gives us contrast on the team – to have hard ballcarriers, shifty distributors with good decision-making, and fast players.”
In the second half, Broughton chased down a kick, made the tackle, popped to her feet for the poach, try and 10-0 win. That turn of events is emblematic of the offense-producing defense that Life embodies.
Broughton had dazzled all tournament long, showcasing her excellent footwork and deceptive change of pace that froze defenses and produced multiple tries. All told, nine players scored tries: Strasko 8, Kim Semiglia 6, Broughton 5, N’Keiah Butler 3, Rom 2, Christina Swift 2, Whitney Wilson 2, Cynthia Kelly, Madison Ohmann.
“We talk about playing together and it being bigger than ourselves,” Chou said. “It’s just a game. Mentally, that puts them in a place where there’s no pressure. … I could see they were excited as they waited to walk out of the tunnel, but if you looked in their eyes, you didn’t see any doubt. They’re mentally tough and confident; they make decisions on offense and know how and when to pressure on defense. And they know how to manage pressure. They have a good mindset.”
And now Life has good momentum. The Running Eagles weren’t originally planning on attending the USA Rugby championship, opting instead to focus energies on the CRC 7s; however, the team was excited by the addition to the schedule. Chou will be fielding a similar roster this weekend in Chester, Pa., and now the competition has a new favorite.
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