There’s something special about a young team winning a championship. There’s promise for more success in the near future, but more importantly, the triumphs insinuate that the program as a whole is doing something right in order to breed cohesion and game readiness so quickly. The USA Rugby DI College Fall Championship featured two such teams: title-winner U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) and Davenport University.
The Air Force coaching staff is in its fourth year together and led by co-head coaches Amy Rusert and Scott Mears. Assistant coach Skip Shackelford has been an integral member of the USAFA rugby organization for decades, and Officer in Charge (OIC) Emily Ladd is also crucial.
“It’s taken a village. We started in 2015 and so we’re settling in with our little coaching and OIC team,” Rusert said. “And the cadets have a great culture and great numbers – all of the recruiting is done on base. … We’re firing on all cylinders.”
Heading into the fall 2018 season, the staff didn’t anticipate a leadership vacuum so much as an experience vacuum. But as is often the case on championship teams, players stepped up. When forwards captain and sophomore Jess Beyer took a season-ending injury, prop-turned-No. 8 Sierra DeHart and flanker-turned-scrumhalf Devin Doyle put their hands up.
“Same with Rhiannon Townsend, who did a great job at flyhalf,” Rusert said of the freshman. “She’s got good ball service and sees the field well. She had a surge in confidence and I think she’s finding her leadership chops on the field.”
Reflecting on Sunday’s fall final, Rusert was also impressed with freshman inside center Elizabeth Laboe, who started with the B side and then worked her way onto the A side as a wing. The first-year developed into an impactful center, who paired well with senior captain Sara Cook at outside center.
“What we saw from her in the final was really good textbook rugby,” Rusert said. “She doesn’t lose possession, she takes good lines, and she’s a natural distributor. There’s a lot of promise there, too.”
One of the most notable additions to the rugby pitch this season has been Adrienne Yoder, who scored three tries in the final. The former varsity soccer player has a diverse athletic background that includes boxing and ice hockey, and slots nicely into the back row and centers.
“She’s a consummate athlete and a really quick study,” Rusert said of Yoder’s progression. “She’s a natural tackler and very good at the point of contact, but she’s really versatile and does well in the open field, too. You give her a little more space in the backline and she has the opportunity to get that first step and be elusive.”
Heading into Sunday’s fall final, the game plan was simple: Maintain possession, move through the phases and exhaust the field. The rain and wind had moved on, so few adjustments were needed for the weather.
“Our forwards don’t typically match up well in size, but our tight five in particular was really physical. That was a little gem for us,” said Rusert, who noted standouts Dom Gordon, Zoe Barnette and Callan Medeiros. “They did a yeoman’s job – quick in support, superlative with ball retention, stayed in their shape. Our ability to continually get the ball wide was a result of the forwards doing their job and then some.”
There were some disruptions, including the loss of power prop Veronica Dobbs and a yellow card, that challenged the team’s composure. And Davenport, being the resilient team that it is, put in the final two tries of the first half for a 23-10 halftime score.
“We never thought they were not going to be a threat in an 80-minute game,” Rusert said of Davenport. “Their scrumhalf [Olivia Ortiz] is always a threat that requires containment. She’s good on both sides of the ball, and is one of their best ruckers and counter-ruckers. She’s a good decision-maker who sees space well.
“We knew they had a little momentum and didn’t want to allow them back in the game,” the coach rehashed the halftime talk. “We wanted to keep them deep in their own territory and thought the kicking game was the way to do it, considering how they were covering the back field. We were able to chase well or send numbers into breakdown, and keep possession in our advantage.”
The teams scored three tries and a conversion apiece in the second half, keeping the point differential intact, 40-27 the final. (Read the play-by-play)
“I think we were more than pleasantly surprised with what we saw with the youth,” Rusert reiterated.
And so the cycle perpetuates itself – for Air Force and Davenport, which will take this experience and grow from it. Fortunately for the rest of us, these two programs value 7s and are regulars at the USA Rugby College 7s National Championship, so there’s possibility for another meet-up in six months’ time.