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Catholic Bracing for NSCRO Nationals

  • 29 Nov 2018
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Photos courtesy CUA Women’s Rugby

The National Small College Rugby Association (NSCRO) is holding its national 15s championship this weekend at Life University in Marietta, Ga., and Saturday’s semifinals pit two final-four newcomers against each other. Salve Regina (read more) and Catholic University of America (“Catholic”) bring with them an element of surprise, although the Washington, D.C., program has some recent momentum off which to build.

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But this high-water mark took some time to develop. The current seniors spent their freshman year going 0-4 in league. The team, under the continual guidance of head coach Alex Schaefer, then committed itself to recruitment, fundraising and the pursuit of solid game fundamentals. Kyle Prudence joined as assistant coach last year and brought even more precision to the pack, its breakdown work, decision-making and tackling.

But an important piece of the puzzle – the thing that they will sustain the team moving forward – formed outside of those high-stakes games.

“We were able to travel to tournaments in Rhode Island [Beast of the East] two years ago and then went to Nash Bash last year,” Schaefer highlighted a turning point for the program. “Those opportunities to play outside of the DMV [Delaware-Maryland-Virginia] area helped us develop more holistically as a program.”

Road trips enrich the fabric of a team in a unique way, and Catholic emerged as a more integrated, culturally sound unit. In 2017-18, Catholic finished runner-up in the DII Capital conference and attended its first DII Spring Round of 16. Stalwarts graduated in spring 2018, but the coaches knew that if a solid recruitment class arrived for fall 2018, then continued improvement was on the horizon.

“It starts with Courtney Gosse,” Schaefer said of the 5th-year social work major and flyhalf. “She’s been captain since last year but has always had an off- and on-field leadership role. … She has an innate ability to connect with folks, identify what’s important to them and support them. She provides a human element. She’s a friend and player, not just a captain.”

Gosse partners with forwards captain Alex Massa, who is predominantly a loose forward but has played everywhere in the pack. Massa did a great job welcoming this fall’s recruits, working with players one on one, while also helping to define practices and game strategy.

In the season-opener, Catholic beat George Mason in a what Schaefer described as a toss-up.

“But they played clean, consistent rugby and totally adapted from the 1st to 2nd halves. That boded well for us,” Schaefer recalled team assessments with Prudence. “Local rival George Washington was a turning point for us – that’s when we realized we were a competitive, consistent team. We tied them 24-24 and haven’t beaten them in years so this was forward progress.”

Capital is a DII/NSCRO hybrid competition, meaning all teams play regular-season games against each other and then separate out for the post-season. Longwood was the only other NSCRO team in Capital this year and forfeited its final’s berth, leaving Catholic with a handicap.

“We hadn’t had a full match in three weeks,” Schaefer said of the anemic build-up to NSCRO regional playoffs. “So when Longwood forfeited, we worked with all the folks in the DII [Capital] final four and created a motley squad for a 40-minute friendly on Sunday [of the DII conference championships]. Big ups to Bill Lucas from Mary Washington and the GW coach for getting it together.”

Schaefer indicated that that kind of support is common in the region, which is dense with adult clubs and college programs willing to hold joint practices together.

Catholic traveled to York College, Pa., for the NSCRO regional playoffs and competed in the Mid-Atlantic pool. The National Round of 16 pit the D.C. team against Scranton, and both teams struggled with accuracy as a cold, bitter wind affected passing and speed. Catholic’s athletic, versatile pack found success, and team defense put in a season’s best for a 36-0 win. On the other side of the bracket, Tennessee’s Lee beat Albright 34-12.

“At dinner that night, we spent 20 minutes going over rugby law, because when you’re at playoffs, you’re seeing a different level of refereeing and they’re calling the game a little differently,” Schaefer said. “Specifically we talked about advantage – what is it and how can you use it to your advantage? You can be a little more creative in the next few seconds or take risks in a smart way. That conversation paid dividends on Sunday, when you could see the lightbulb go off and they were able to adapt and navigate the situation.”

A heated quarterfinal against Lee followed. Scrumhalf Elizabeth Eways did a great job withstanding the pressure at the breakdown and moving the ball away from contact, while Gosse made good decisions from flyhalf and gave the outside backs opportunities to run. In tight, flanker Elizabeth Peyroux kept the defense guessing, fending through the line or sending the skip pass when the situation called for it. Emma Nelsen also brought that type of intensity on the pitch. Nelson is six-plus feet and uses that height advantageously but is also a work horse on defense. The flanker scored Catholic’s first try of the quarterfinal, and earned MVP and the Heart & Soul Award on the weekend.

But it was the work of the rookies that Schaefer credited the 12-5 quarterfinal win to. Players like Nicole Macchio, a junior who played some rugby abroad in Ireland, made an immediate impact when subbed onto the pitch, bringing fire and a knack for momentum-building offloads into the game. During blood subs and injuries, the added depth provided by the newcomers saw wings to move to the front row and loose forwards, and the team was still able to play to its strengths. And the game-sealing score came from rookie wing Nina Digregorio in the second half.

“That match is where we really started recognizing the value of the rookies,” Schaefer said. “Our wing, Nina, is picking up the game quickly. A smart decision-maker, has speed, is fending well. It’s fun to sub her in – give her the ball and she takes off.”

The 12-5 victory over Lee afforded a first-ever trip to the NSCRO national final four, where Catholic will face fellow newcomer Salve Regina.

“As a coach, my single goal is that they embrace the atmosphere and let it energize them,” Schaefer said. “We’re doing all the prep to make sure we’re competitive. They’re falling in love with the sport and its culture, and I hope they take this high-level competition and enjoy the experience.”

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