WSC No. 8 Anna Fleecs / Photo courtesy Wayne State Rugby Fans Facebook
Make it three 15s national titles in a row – and nine overall when including 7s – for Wayne State College. The Wayne, Neb., school repeated as the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) 15s national champion after defeating MSU Moorhead 51-7 and Catholic University of America 67-12 at Life University in Marietta, Ga.
Darrin Barner, who has served as Wayne State College head coach since founding the program in 2002, contrasted last weekend’s results with early-season expectations.
“I never would have guessed that,” Barner referenced the championship point differentials. “Only four starters from last year’s national championship team returned, and 11 were brand new to college rugby this year. We were so new this year.”
Junior Anna Fleecs and sophomore Brook Hoesing took the lead in their respective roles as forwards and backs captains. The new crop of athletes bought into the Wildcats’ structured pattern of play and emphasis on defense, and Barner marveled as the squad, without fail, improved with every outing.
“We scheduled October games against Arkansas, Oklahoma and Pittsburg State, and used them for what I always call ‘measuring stick games,’” Barner said. “They’re big schools with good rugby, and I was curious to see what our level would be playing them. Those scores ended up being 200-0 over three games.”
A jump in confidence followed, but not so much to completely eliminate nerves on game day.
“As we got deeper into the schedule and the games got harder, they rose to the challenge,” Barner said of the western regional playoff wins against Northern Michigan and MiraCosta. “They had been nervous from day one – we didn’t know if we’d go .500 this season – but by the time we got to the final four, there were no more nerves.”
But Barner wasn’t thrilled about meeting MSU Moorhead in the national semifinals. The Minnesota team beat the Wildcats in 2014 and then 2015 en route to the national title, and went undefeated in 2018 up until the national semifinals.
“It rained two inches and it was extremely difficult for either team to handle the ball. You’d get tackled and the ball would pop out, force a knock-on and then a scrum,” said Barner, whose team strategized for back-to-back days of totally different weather conditions. “We addressed this in our Friday night meeting: Saturday would be won by the scrum, and Sunday would be decided by the backs.”
The Wildcats took a 36-7 halftime lead before finishing with a 51-7 semifinal win. Wayne State College then watched the other semifinal, as Salve Regina took the first half, and then Catholic University took the second. The teams were tied late in the game until a final try from the D.C. team afforded a 19-12 win and berth to the final.
“Catholic was a very balanced team, like Wayne State. They did the typical forward possession game, working the ball the width of the field and out to the backs – like what we do,” Barner said. “I definitely thought the match-up would be equal as far as strategy and athleticism.”
Sunday was a beautiful day with sun, 70s and no wind, and a faster game was in store. Catholic took the opening kickoff and worked several promising phases in its own end, while Wayne State diligently applied its pressure defense. Eventually, outside center Lauren Nelson picked off a pass and returned it for a try, converted by scrumhalf Selma Taylor, 7-0.
Wayne State College’s defense was a difference-maker and it stifled Catholic in the first half. More opportunity saw the Wildcats add four more tries from flyhalf Holly Schupbach (2), wing Cassie Pickerl and hooker Issabelle Robinson. Taylor and prop Julia Baxter hit the extras for a 33-0 halftime lead. Flanker Kennedy Jones (2), Taylor and Hoesing scored in the second half (50-0), and then two tries from outside center Julia Malcotti snapped the shutout. The game ended with a second Hoesing try and 67-12 final.
“The national championship game was won by our defense,” Barner said. “We were able to keep the other team on their side of the 35-meter line for a high percentage of the game, and when we got the ball back, we didn’t have to go far to score. Former NFL coach [and supporter] Dennis Danielson is a major influence to our defense, and we’re very proud of our defensive strategy.”
For the first year, NSCRO integrated a defense award into its lineup of recognition, and flyhalf Schupbach earned Wayne State College’s top honors.
“How many people can say their flyhalf is their linebacker,” Barner said of the Green Bay, Wisc., native. “She’s not afraid to get down and dirty. It was well deserved.”
Championship MVP went to freshman scrumhalf Selma Taylor, who had a big role to fill after the graduation of Leanna Rosberg – MVP of the 2017 15s National Championship 2018 7s National Championship.
“She came to Wayne State College last year to watch our Sweet 16 game against SUNY Oneonta,” Barner said of the Kansas City, Mo., freshman. “I had a chat with her and her dad after the game, and she said she wanted to play college rugby somewhere, and she picked Wayne. She’s an angel – super polite, courteous and kind, and just a true diplomat of a good sport.”
The Heart & Soul award went to Maddie Putler, and Barner also singled out the lone senior – prop Alex Gorden – who played the best game of her career on Sunday.
In the end, Barner credited the successful season to team-oriented rugby and chemistry. When the team bus arrived back in Wayne on 12:30 p.m. Monday, the school had a welcome reception with students, faculty, local radio and newspaper outlets, as well as NBC and CBS t.v. crews. The team will also be honored during halftime of a men’s basketball game in January, and bask in the well deserved praise … and then start looking at 7s.