Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Forge Facebook
The Pittsburgh Forge was a gamble. If the merger between the Angels and Highlanders went swimmingly, then a new hub for better-quality rugby would evolve. If personalities clashed and the relationship was toxic, then even tougher times would follow. Fortunately the first-season club seems to be heading down the former path, and the recent win over perennial league-leader Buffalo supports an optimistic future.
“Instead of poaching players and fighting over recruits, we had the opportunity to become one team and bring a higher level of rugby to Pittsburgh,” Forge head coach Jason Edsall said of the club’s genesis. “But there was some hesitation in combining two squads that historically had a strong distaste for each other.”
The entire club consists of men’s DII and DIII teams in addition to the women’s team, and the familiarization process began over the summer and 7s. When it was time to get work, Edsall, the former Highlanders coach, partnered with former Angel Desiree Markovich on the coaching staff, and then two captains from each of the previous teams were named: Hannah Zibert (Highlanders) and Chelsey Mitchell (Angels).
“We wanted to create some balance so players weren’t approaching practice like it was exclusively one voice,” Edsall said. “Initially there were concerns that one team might take over the other, but both captains are tremendous at distilling that notion. They’ve bought into the new team and they hold everyone accountable. They’re making decisions based on what’s best for the team.”
With double the training numbers, bigger and better practices evolved, and players enjoyed the uptick in competition. A team identity started to form.
“Honestly it happened quickly,” Edsall said of gelling process. “Everyone truly dropped everything to become one team. It’s a positive environment and everyone’s dedicated themselves to practices and working on their own. They’re a very coachable group and give constructive feedback.”
Pittsburgh competes in the DII Midwest East Gold, along with five other teams. The team played its first two games on the road and defeated South Buffalo 37-24 and Cleveland 48-12. The first home game resulted in a 67-20 win over North Buffalo, and then last weekend Forge traveled to Western New York to face traditional leader Buffalo.
“I saw a glimmer in the first match, then this weekend against Buffalo was the turning point,” Esdall said of on-field unity.
Pittsburgh took a 24-12 lead into the break, as Jessica Brewer, Carrie Dvorsak, Ashley Chipps (2) scored tries, and Madelyn Miller kicked conversions. Erika Huard and Samantha Gray scored for Buffalo, while Jenna Hutzler kicked the extras. In the second half, however, the home side surged to overtake the lead.
“We let in three tries in eight minutes and had to fight back,” Edsall said of the 31-24 deficit after 55 minutes. “The team culture took over, and the captains, the sidelines – everyone picked each other up. That was a great chance to fall apart, but it was all a positive message.”
The exchange continued to the final whistle, but Forge was able to add 17 more points through Miller, Chloe Correia and Lindsey Olivia tries and a Miller conversion. Buffalo responded with a penalty kick and try at the death, and Forge held on for the 41-39 win.
“Walking off the field, there was no Highlanders or Angels, just one team,” Edsall said. “They saw a change in themselves. We just took down a team that went undefeated in the league for multiple years in a row, and they knew what an accomplishment that was.”
Forge will play Akron on Oct. 13 to round out league play, and then the Midwest playoffs begin. The top-two teams from East Gold will face the top-two teams from East Green, and then the East victor will face the West champion.
“I knew the talent we had on Highlanders and the potential of the Angels, and I knew the competition of the league,” Edsall summarized pre-season hopes for playoffs. “With more players and more experience, everyone is developing and pushing each other. I didn’t know how it was going to go, but it’s working frightening well.”
The Midwest is the only Competitive Region that names its Division I and Division II club champions in the fall, thereby freeing up teams that aren’t heading to nationals to plan their springs well in advance. Expect more Midwest-focused coverage as the fall evolves.