Photos courtesy Colorado Mesa Women’s Rugby
Colorado Mesa head coach Mack Lewis saw the writing on the wall, as opponents were fielding noticeably smaller rosters last year. Nevertheless, four teams returned to the DII Rocky Mountain (Wyoming moved to DI) for this season. Mesa began with a 68-7 win over Colorado Mines, and then the team’s subsequent four games were cancelled. In a matter of days, Mesa’s schedule was decimated.
“It’s extremely difficult to keep the players enthusiastic and interested in practice when you find out that – after doing well in your first game – you have the next four weeks of teams cancel on you,” Lewis said. “It’s been frustrating.”
But Lewis’ concern goes deeper than forfeited games. The former USA U20 flanker from Chaparral founded the Mesa women’s team as a player and has been coaching it for the last six years. Three years ago, Lewis started coaching the men’s team as well.
“I don’t think the colleges in Colorado are set up for success,” Lewis said. “The high schools moved from 15s to 7s only, so instead of looking at [a high school’s] 30-man roster, you’re looking at a potential 15 who want to play in college.”
Lewis noted that although there’s a pinch on the men’s player pool, it’s not as dire as the women’s situation, since Colorado still fields 15s for high school boys. Summit High School is an exception and can field four 7s teams on any given weekend, but the Tigers are certainly the exSo, with the team motto in mind – control what you can control – Lewis and players recruit on campus, hard.
“We go with ex-athletes you can convert [to rugby] and we’re going to continue with that [strategy],” said Lewis, a former soccer player. “You need to find those athletes who don’t want to be owned by a DI school or don’t want to continue on with the sport they thought was their life.”
The current roster, which numbers 21 on a healthy day, features three players with high school experience, and the rest are crossovers, gym buddies, intramural basketball teammates or athletes cut from varsity sports.
“Our flyhalf is from New Zealand,” Lewis introduced Tyneesha Houkamau. “She came here on a softball scholarship and I recruited her hard for years. … She never had a person on the softball team and I always told her she was welcome to join us. She has a lot of rugby knowledge, and her dad watches our film and offers input through her. She’s probably in my office every other day.”
Houkamau leads the team alongside No. 8 Audrey Kachin, a former basketball player and “rugby stud,” Lewis praised.
“They’re both quiet leaders and lead by example,” the coach said. “We don’t really have a vocal leader on the team, which might be a good thing. There’s no one yelling, ‘What is this crap!?’ Instead, they realize these are the chips we’ve been dealt and they’re rallying the troops.”
When Mesa’s schedule imploded, Lewis flew into action to rebuild it. After all of the intricate maneuvering, the Mavericks were able to pick up all but two weekends with games against Division I and senior club B sides. They took their lumps against BYU’s second team, which was traveling through Grand Junction, a city that lies four hours from rugby hubs Denver and Salt Lake City. Last weekend, Mesa played a mixed Air Force B and Colorado State side for 40 minutes (51-0), and then Western State for the second 40 (29-0).
“And I have special circumstances, also coaching the men’s team, and [Rocky Mountain commissioner] Ed McKenna really worked with me [to coordinate schedules and travel].
“It’s disheartening to build and grow and compete, and then not have matches, or lopsided ones where the skill isn’t there,” the coach continued. “It’s no fun to win by 80-90 points – or to lose by that much. I’ve been on both ends – we had our butts handed to us by BYU, and then we returned the favor the next weekend.”
Nearly half of Mesa’s team is new, and this fall season is all they know, and therefore, normal. The fact that the Mavericks have had the same referee, because he’s the only referee in the area, for all of their games – normal. Playing two legitimate league matches against the same opponent – normal. Not knowing what lies ahead playoff wise – normal.
However, some of the veterans can peer into the future, as the Mavs are regulars in the post-season. The DII fall playoffs start with the Round of 32, and it’s not uncommon to see wildly lopsided scores until the semifinals.
“Usually we have a weak season and then we meet Winona in the playoffs and they beat the crap out of us,” Lewis said. “We’re set up for failure, but the same thing’s happening to Winona.”
The Black Katts have taken their fair share of forfeit wins this season, too. Other leagues, both high school and college, are experimenting with 7s, 10s and 15s options in hopes of stimulating growth. In the meantime, fewer people are playing, and time will tell whether those 7s and 10s teams will ever feel the impetus to recruit harder now that they have regular competition.
“Getting our butts handed to us [by BYU] was also good. It showed us how to handle a loss and bounce back from that,” Lewis delivered a sentiment that could be applied to the fall as a whole. “We control what we can control. You can’t control the ref, so you adjust to the calls. When you have a team to play, you show up and play with pace, support – do all the simple things well.”
In the near future, Mesa will play NSCRO’s Colorado College next weekend. The team’s looking forward to that matchup, as it’s been historically good. Lewis actually hopes that Colorado College considers coming back to DII (hybrid league!).
An outpouring of effort and collaboration has seen Mesa salvage a season, but there’s a cycle of frustration underway. Lewis understands that expending a ton of effort at home doesn’t necessarily translate outside of Grand Junction; that the Mavericks need outside factors – feeders, well built opposition, quality referees and coaches – to function just as well.
USA Rugby has not yet released sites for the fall regional playoffs, which begin in November, or the December championship. Stay tuned.