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Cincinnati Hungry for Top 4 Showdown

  • 27 Nov 2018

Cincinnati has made steady gains through consecutive post-seasons, and 2017 marked the Ohio Valley team’s first foray into the USA Rugby DII College Fall Championship’s semifinals. Cincinnati finished fourth overall, and that experience triggered a deeper hunger to return and improve, and the team has its chance this weekend.

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“Losing last year gave them the drive to want to come back and kick ass,” said Cincinnati assistant coach Kayla Closson, who also serves as DII Ohio Valley conference commissioner. “They came back from the summertime hungry to make it back to the [fall] final four.”

A group of 10-12 core players stabilized a big roster, which also welcomed several newcomers with high school experience. Head coach Craig Russell, who served as Cincinnati’s backs coach prior to this season, had also led Walnut Hills High School to a DII Rugby Ohio championship in its first year. Some of those players, now collegians, reunited with Russell at Cincinnati.

Photos: JP Leone

“At the beginning of the season we asked them about their ambitions – do you just want to enjoy the game or do want to be competitive,” Russell recalled early indications that the team intended to succeed this year. “All agreed: Go as far as we can competition wise. So we adapted our coaching styles and direction and the way we were playing things [to accommodate].”

Russell explained that there weren’t any major shifts, just more focus on intensity and game fitness. Playing with continuity is also a key element of Cincinnati’s game – and is especially crucial during back-to-back weekends – and so shoring up everyone’s fundamentals became a focus as well.

“We addressed a lot of the technical aspects of the sport,” Russell said. “So many times you watch a game and the ball is never kicked, or a team doesn’t know how to mark the ball. There are so many sides that are not explored in the game, and that’s what I try to bring with my own background.”

Unfortunately Cincinnati didn’t face much resistance during the Ohio Valley regular season, as teams struggled with recruitment and retention, for both players and coaches. When opponents were low on numbers or took on injuries, Cincinnati supplied reinforcements and thus got its younger players valuable field experience.

So the team had to rely on itself and leaned on high velocity training sessions. Fortunately, No. 8 and captain Abigail Lowman, and fullback and vice captain Madeleine Conklin stoked the team’s motivation whenever attention wavered. They’re supported by seniors like center Justine Perl and lock Sammy Harrell, among others, who have pushed Cincinnati to new heights each of the previous three years, and are looking at their last shot at the DII fall title.

After winning the Ohio Valley conference championship handily, Cincinnati welcomed the trip to Columbia, Mo., for some competition.

“Regionals brought our game alive because we knew it was going to be harder,” Russell said. “My starting speech was: This is our last game of the season, girls. If we win – great – if we lose, we get on the bus. Let’s set the bar.”

Cincinnati beat Illinois State 48-5 in the Fall Round of 16 and the following day defeated Indiana University of Pennsylvania 34-17 in the quarterfinals.

“They really performed well. Their defense was excellent – couldn’t have wished for any better,” Russell continued. “You can practice, practice, practice, but this is a reaction game. You have to react to that miss pass or dropped ball – that is how the game is played. You can force certain things to happen, but you have to expect the unexpected.”

Cincinnati is obviously excited to be returning to the fall semifinals, and while returners are looking forward to another hit-out against reigning champion Winona State, the team continues to focus energy inward.

“I’m not trying to get into the girls’ heads too much,” Russell said of researching opponents. “They’re just focusing on playing their game Saturday, and from there we’ll address what happens on Sunday. One game at a time. … I’m quietly confident, with a small snigger at the end.”

A big crew is heading to Charlotte, N.C., from Cincinnati and will be on hand for the 2 p.m. ET meeting with Winona State this Saturday, Dec. 1. Click here for the full schedule and tune into FloRugby for the live-stream.


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