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Winona Joins DI Midwest Season

  • 23 Oct 2018

Photos courtesy of Winona State Men’s Rugby Facebook

Winona State, the current DII College Fall Champion, has struggled for years with forfeit-ridden seasons that send the Black Katts to regional playoffs undercooked. On two previous occasions, the Minnesota school has applied to join the DI Midwest conference and was denied, but some change in leadership and this fall’s omission of UW Milwaukee encouraged a third attempt.

“The time was right and the moon and stars aligned,” Winona State assistant coach and faculty advisor Roger Riley enthused after the Black Katts were admitted to the fall 2019 DI Midwest. “We also learned by our mistakes of the past: We got approval from USA Rugby [Women’s College Competitions Committee] first, then from the Minnesota Rugby Union in a 10-0 vote, and finally to the DI Midwest Conference in a 6-0 vote.”

Riley compiled a compelling proposal that included the program’s history of honored debts and no forfeits, the reduced traveling time for the majority of DI teams (with UW Milwaukee absent), Winona State’s facilities, and the unlikelihood of ever going varsity. Winona State also suggested a DII post-season path, so the Black Katts would compete in the DI Midwest conference beginning in fall 2019 but would pursue a berth to the DII fall playoffs. Competition wise, the Black Katts could certainly compete in DI, but school size wise, it’s DII. With the exception of the University of Northern Iowa, all of the DI conference members have double-digit enrollment, whereas Winona State has just over 6,600 students total.

In the end, Winona State just wanted games.

“If we, players and coaches, are going to give the effort during the week, we want the reward of game time on the weekends,” Winona State head coach Josh Krzewinski emphasized playing time. “At this point moving to the D1 Midwest conference will provide those games. Having three forfeits during your league season isn’t productive for anyone. We may struggle for a while and take our lumps. It’s just something we need to be prepared to deal with.”

The decision came at the right time for Winona State, especially as Riley noticed that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to recruit.

“Since your article with Mack Lewis at Mesa [link], I have been e-mailing with her. We both agree that getting kids out of high school is becoming increasingly difficult,” Riley recapped. “Further, as we do with most of our players, getting them once they get to Winona is also becoming increasingly difficult.

Riley noted that varsity programs are attracting competitive high schoolers and the growth of high school 7s in lieu of 15s is limiting the candidate pool.

“As I recently read in an article by a psychologist from San Diego State, the current crop of college students is all about being physically and emotionally safe,” Riley referenced a potential limiter to recruitment. “They have been scared to death by articles about contact sport – or at least, their parents have – and they are not adventure takers; preferring to take no risks such as picking up a new sport for which they have no familiarity.

“Add to this the increasing oversight of universities with regard to liability, and you get a paperwork nightmare for club sports like rugby,” the faculty advisor continued. “For instance, we cancelled our first practice of the season [for veterans only] so that each player could complete 24 separate tasks to be able to play the season. There is more paperwork to come if we make playoffs. No Club President, voted in for their senior year, can possibly know the myriad of paperwork that needs to be done.”

Winona State is very fortunate to have staff like Riley and Krzewinski to guide the program while it adjusts the changing flow of athletes. At least the competition component of the formula is evolving in the right direction.

#WinonaState Midwest

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