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Don’t Sleep on Salve

  • 15 Nov 2018
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Photos: Colonial Coast Rugby Conference Facebook

The National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) contested the first two rounds of its national championship last weekend, and four teams now remain in the title hunt. It’s all new to Salve Regina, the Rhode Island team that won its first Colonial Coast conference championship and spent last weekend winning the Northeast region. The NSCRO final four is next, and the Seahawks aren’t content with the berth alone – they want to win.

“Nobody should sleep on these ladies; they’re all heart,” said Salve Regina coach Catherine Carmignani. “I really think this is the year for them and I’m just very fortunate to be a part of the program and lucky they selected me to help them become a better team. When I stepped onto the field and started coaching, I was not thinking about conference championships or nationals; I wanted to give them the foundation to be a really successful rugby team and have fun. … Winning is fun but knowing you’re a good player playing good rugby is even better.”

Carmignani picked up the game at Wentworth Institute of Technology and got a first taste of coaching at the Boston school. While pursuing a masters across the street from American International College, Carmignani joined the Yellow Jackets staff for the first two years of the women’s program and learned a tremendous amount from Josh Macy. Professional pursuits – Carmignani works in the sports marketing and branding field, primarily with college athletics – forced a six-year hiatus from coaching, but then the Salve Regina opportunity arose in September.

The confidence that marks the coach’s comments today took some time to develop.

“There were eight or nine seniors who were very set in their ways. They actually told me, ‘This is the position I play, and these are the plays we run.’ That first week, they weren’t very pleased with the changes I was making,” the coach said. “But I knew there was a way to make it work if we could shuffle people into the right positions.”

There were two main foci in the beginning of the season: Get players into their proper positions and buckle down on basic skills so they’re second nature come game time.

“The team was forward heavy and always had been, and it was considered a punishment to be sent to the backs,” Carmignani said. “‘No, we’re going to be a full 15s team; everyone will contribute to the game plan and how we execute it.’ Now the forwards tease the backs how much they’re scoring and it’s a privilege to play there.”

Most notably, two locks/utility forwards moved into the centers – Jackie Martel and Zoe Cockinos. Martel is a very strong ballcarrier with good hands and a good rugby brain. Cockinos, also known as “noodle,” is both tough to tackle and the best tackler on the team.

“I would put them up against any team – DI, DII, [NSCRO],” Carmignani said. “These two will run through anyone. And they’re incredible players who were hidden in another position for however many years.”

The team’s a-ha moment occurred after the first try of the first game of the season against Eastern Connecticut. All 15 players executed their roles, relied on the basics and produced the score.

“I’m not discounting any other [NSCRO] team out there, but if you can execute the basics – tackle, support teammates and clear through rucks – you will win the match 100% hands down,” Carmignani said. “Not every team in [NSCRO] has the full complement of skills. They might have great defense or great support, but they’ll lack elsewhere. … And after the first try, they looked to me and it clicked: It was a full 15 effort and all it took was a mastery of the basics. It all happened so quickly.”

Once the team got a glimpse of how good it could be, the momentum followed. An important 24-5 win over UMass Dartmouth – a team that Carmignani praised as consistently good and physical – reaffirmed the team’s gains, and Salve Regina went on to beat Wentworth 78-0 in the league semifinals and Endicott 63-14 in the Colonial Coast conference championship.

“It was a good shakeup, and now they don’t want to stop. They weren’t content with the conference championship and once we got to regionals, they weren’t content with losing a match and dominated,” Carmignani said.

Salve Regina traveled to Schenectady, N.Y., for NSCRO’s Northeast regional championships, and was met with cold, windy, muddy conditions.

“The message to the team was: It’s not the best rugby team but the best mentally prepared team that will win today. If you can’t get over the hurdle of being cold, wet and numb, then you’re not going to win,” Carmignani recalled the pre-game chat against Franklin Pierce. “They got in the zone, and when they realized that the other team didn’t want to compete with them physically, they took the match.”

Good support play and driving rucks allowed for quick ball and a speedy attack around the corners, and Salve Regina beat Franklin Pierce 43-10 in the national Round of 16. Rochester beat Fordham 64-0 on the other side of the bracket, and Salve Regina watched on as the Upstate New York team deployed a pick-and-go game that methodically eroded the defensive line. Salve Regina knew Rochester would be fresh for Sunday.

The Seahawks scored the first two tries and then Rochester answered back. The scoreboard sat at 12-5 for some time.

“There was a point where we were getting tired and got caught not launching. But we corrected that quickly because the penalties were piling up,” Carmignani said of the Sunday quarterfinal. “At halftime, we talked about not contesting a ruck if it was already lost, because [the next phase] will come quickly. Rochester were coming in really low in their pick-and-goes and crash balls, so we worked on getting them to ground and staying on our feet to contest and steal the ball.”

The strategy worked and the Seahawks were able to steal some possession and move the ball through backs captain Elizabeth Maher. Players committed the defense and put away scores through the outside speed. A couple of players found success out wide but MVP and fullback Erin Gunther was particularly damaging.

“The entire game, the entire weekend, she was ridiculous,” coach said. “She’s a former track athlete and found her calling in rugby. She doesn’t shy away from the biggest player and gets to her feet immediately [after the tackle]. She communicates really well too. The team listens to her direction.”

Salve Regina won 43-15.

“Their IQ has increased so much,” Carmignani said of the team’s adjustments to win. “The wings have great vision and tend to speak up quite often. Maggie Adams, the forwards captain and hooker, always has her finger on the pulse for all things breakdown and scrum related. But it’s the folks on the outside who are identifying things to change.”

Noelle Bauer, Katie DiRago and Aleksandra Dewa are particularly adept in their observations and their feedback helps the team adjust and grow.

During the drive home, Carmignani indicated that the players were in disbelief of their achievements, but the coach reassured them that they’ve earned everything, and there’s still more to come.

“They’re already in Georgia in their minds, and that’s awesome,” the coach said. “This was the first weekend with two matches in a row, and after being beat up for two days, they got in the car and instead of saying, ‘I’m sore. I need sleep, I’m ready for a break,’ all of them want to get back out there and play.”

That chance will come on Dec. 1-2 at Life University in Marietta, Ga. The Seahawks will be joined by reigning champion Wayne State College, Midwest champion UM Moorhead and will face Mid-Atlantic champion Catholic University in the semifinals.

“We’re the underdogs and I think they prefer that,” Carmignani said. “When they step out against these eams with good, consistent histories, it relieves pressure for them. They want to be in this position – nothing to lose. And they want that shock value. They’re stepping out against some of the best teams that have been here before and want to – for lack of a better term – knock them in the jaw from the get-go.”

Learn more at nscro.org or see the full collegiate brackets here.

#SalveRegina NSCRO

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