Davenport coach Greg Teliczan / Photos: Bobby Gable (see more)
The Class of 2018 was so important to the development of Davenport’s identity, and so it was always going to be a new age when those players graduated. The Panthers were ready and had recruited 15 players for fall 2018, and then six backed out last-minute to attend college elsewhere.
“That was kind of a scare – going into the season with 19 kids, knowing that you’re going to get injuries, and playing the schedule we play,” confessed Davenport head coach Greg Teliczan. “Everyone wants to win all the time, but being able to field a team, keeping spirits up – that kind of stuff – was a concern.”
But then this great thing happened: The team rallied and displayed a new kind of resiliency. Captains Lexy King and Olivia Ortiz, as well as veterans like Veronica Overbeek, went out of their way to work with newcomers after and outside of practice. The sizable sophomore class also came into its own.
“There were a lot of freshmen last year who were maybe intimidated by high-level players like Dani Ordway or Hannah Tennant, and they stayed in their shells,” Teliczan said. “When this year’s freshmen came in, they could identify with what they were going through and opened up more. They brought everyone together and wanted them to have a fun first year.”
The players were dedicated to each other and a fun, open-minded atmosphere developed around training. Teliczan didn’t have to worry about drooping spirits, as players genuinely enjoyed spending time with each other. The team picked up a couple of new players early in the season, and although they lacked in rugby experience, it wasn’t a hindrance.
“I’ve been doing this for 5-6 years, and just because you get kids from high school [rugby], it doesn’t necessarily mean their skill level is all that great,” said Teliczan, who noted that some rugby players arrive not knowing how to pass the ball. “So when a new kid with no experience shows up, I try to explain to them that they’re not that far behind. We place a huge emphasis on the basics and we practice them every single day, and not just for 5-10 minutes.”
The team continued to gel and build continuity through its DI independent season, which included wins against Kent State, Youngstown State and Notre Dame. And then in the second half of October, Davenport took on DI Elite’s Lindenwood and Penn State.
“Against Lindenwood, that game showed that they don’t quit,” Teliczan said of the 43-32 loss. “We were down right away, and they fought back, and it continued like that. A lot of the time, Lindenwood was running through us like water, but the kids didn’t stop, chasing 30, 40 meters after a line-break.
“I told them after the game: I’ve never been more proud of a team than after that performance against Lindenwood,” the coach continued. “We lost, got the snot beat out of us, but they were never-say-die and would have played another 40 minutes.”
Teliczan delivered similar praise after the 25-14 loss to Penn State. The team traveled to Pennsylvania with 15 players and knew it was outmatched (Penn State is home to two current Eagles), but was resilient. At one point, the team trailed 15-0 and then answered with two Ortiz tries to close to 15-14. A late score saw Penn State surge ahead for the win.
“The kids were on fire. They just kept attacking,” Teliczan said. “They don’t care if they’re down by 100 or up by 100, they keep playing hard.”
It was a nice boost in advance of the USA Rugby DI College Fall Championship playoffs. This year, Davenport competed in the eastern portion of the Fall Round of 8 and traveled to Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The Grand Rapids, Mich., team was met with cold, wet, muddy conditions, which acted as an equalizer on the pitch. In the quarterfinals, Davenport beat Northeastern 43-12, while UCONN bested Michigan State 35-10 on the other side of the pool. In Sunday’s semifinal, the Panthers triumphed over the Huskies 34-10.
“They’re both solid and had 40-50 players each. They play a really aggressive system – especially UCONN, which attacked just as well with its forwards as with its explosive backs. We were able to shut it down for the most part,” Teliczan said of the Northeast opponents. “We did a great job with ball retention. We didn’t get too crazy trying to make things happen in the mud, and we didn’t lose it in the tackles much. We were just able to maintain possession.”
Nineteen players were rostered for that one and only back-to-back weekend, and Teliczan was impressed with how the young players faired. Ashley Willsea, a prop who’s moved to lock, has been outstanding so far, as has freshman lock-turned-flanker Paige Grossi from Broken Arrow, Okla., who is another solid addition to the squad. The coach also praised freshman flyhalf Lily Hartbarger, who keeps it simple, settled and moving forward.
Up next: Air Force in the USA Rugby DI College Fall Championship. It’s a single-game weekend (unlike DII) and the match will occur on Sunday, Dec. 2 at 11 a.m. EST, live-streaming on FloRugby. These two teams last met in the 2017 fall semifinals, and Davenport won 15-5 before winning the title handily. It’s no secret that Air Force has been waiting for another shot at Davenport ever since then.
“We know we have to come up hard on defense and match their speed as best we can,” Teliczan noted Air Force’s attributes. “Their defense was super quick last year – as soon as that ball moved they were in our face all day long. And I assume they’ll have another quick back line, so defensively, we have to stay on our toes and keep them in front of us.”
Whatever happens on Dec. 2, Teliczan is already proud of what this team has accomplished. Half of the starting roster has been to the fall championship before, so there will be a lot of learning happening through the final whistle.
“It would be incredible if we could pull this off,” Teliczan said of a repeat title. “To go as far as we have, with so few numbers and the youth of this team, it’s incredible. I never would have thought we’d be here.”