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The DI Rocky Mountain conference has altered every year since the country split into DI Elite, and fall and spring DI competitions, but one thing has remained the same: Air Force leads. This year the Colorado Springs team has gone 6-0 in league and conference playoffs, and now eyes Texas champion Sam Houston State in the DI College Fall Championship quarterfinals on Nov. 17.
“We have a really young team this year and the former captains left big shoes to fill,” said Sara Cook, one of four captains leading Air Force. “I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re rebuilding because I don’t feel like we’ve dropped skill wise. We’re reorganizing, finding a new dynamic and testing it through trial-and-error this season. We’re figuring it out from the ground up.”
After some injuries, the team roster has settled in the low 30s, and some dynamic freshmen have been thriving in A side opportunities. The team relies on a quartet of captains, but Cook indicated there are many leaders without titles sharing in the growth process. Sophomore captain Jess Beyer – who scored the title-winning try at the 2018 USA Rugby Open 7s Championship – broke her leg during the Navy friendly, and so No. 8 Sierra DeHart and scrumhalf Devin Doyle have upped their presence.
“The competition has been the same; how we go against them has changed dramatically. Our roster has changed constantly through injuries and availability,” Cook said of the season. “For the most part, the results have been the same. We had a nice build-up, which started with the more manageable teams and ended with [Colorado University] – our biggest competitor.”
Air Force beat Montana State 50-22 in the conference semifinals, while Utah State topped Colorado 38-27. Air Force then beat Utah State 53-24 in the Rocky Mountain championship.
“A lot of the new players had never played that caliber before, so they were getting those nerves,” said Cook, who noted some defensive work-ons after the Montana State game. “Against Utah State, we knew who their strong players were, and they only had 16, so we knew numbers would be difficult [for them]. They dropped down to 13-14 at one point, but it was definitely a challenge.”
Last weekend, Air Force was supposed to fly to Army for a non-league game, but the transport that had originally been reserved for the team was rerouted and the game was canceled. The next game is against Sam Houston State, a team that Air Force has seen in 7s but otherwise competed in DII until the Texas (formerly Lone Star) conference realigned. The two weeks leading up to that match will be spent on tactical work and building trust in the bench – crucial to those back-to-back weekends.
Air Force won the DI Fall Championship in 2016 but ended last year’s post-season run in the fall semifinals against eventual champion Davenport. Air Force gave the Panthers its best game of the season in the 15-5 decision in terribly muddy conditions.
“I personally wasn’t there last year,” said Cook, who was on exchange, “but from the ladies’ perspective, we could have performed better and we’re hoping for better conditions – or that we’re able to rise above the same conditions.
“When we were advertising our team this year, we emphasized that we have a respectable reputation as 15s and 7s champions, and we want to keep that pace going,” the captain continued. “The team motto is, ‘Leave the jersey in a better place,’ and we’re trying to do that.”