Ready to launch / Photo: Tabitha Sneed Lowe
Numbers wise, Life University didn’t graduate a big class in spring 2018. Identity wise, those six now-alumnae were giants, and their absences left a variety of vacancies. And then 16 new players relocated to Marietta, Ga., for the 2018-19 school year, and the Running Eagles began work on a fundamental question:
“Who are we now,” Life University Ros Chou reflected on the team’s journey to today. “A lot of this year was figuring out the new personnel, and there was a big range. We had three fifth-years – graduates from AIC, UVA and Harvard – then some really young freshmen, three or four 17-year-olds. They’re drastically different but they balanced out.
“And we’ve never had another scrumhalf! Madison [Ohmann] was here for five years and started with the team when it was still a club,” Chou added.
Johnson / Photo: Tabitha Sneed Lowe
Tatum Johnson, who started her freshman year at Life in January 2018, had started training behind Ohmann last year. And then AIC All-American Bridget Kahele put her hand up after a summer mentorship with New Zealand Women’s Player of the Year Kendra Cocksedge. The Black Fern not only helped Kahele transition from the front row to halfback, but also taught her to kick off the tee.
“She brought in huge competition at that position and that has made Tatum a really good scrumhalf,” Chou spoke to the competitive relationship. “Bridget is gritty, tough, plays fast, and sees the field. She’s been awesome and it’s pushed Tatum to play faster and really get the ball out, and to do what it takes to keep pace. I’m happy with both of them.”
Kahele / Photo: Tabitha Sneed Lowe
To boot, Ohmann has moved back to Atlanta and is one of several Life alumnae (Darian Lovelace, Christina Swift, Kaitlyn Broughton) participating in the USA 15s regional training sessions with current players. So Ohmann and Kahele can literally push each other at these practices.
Chou also praised former All-American Haley Langan for her commanding presence in the lineouts as well as general leadership skills and understanding of the game. Freshmen and former High School All-Americans Paige Fallon and Susie Adegoke have also developed into key contributors in their first years. Fallon is making an impact from both lock and the back row, while Adegoke is joining Life’s fast attack out wide.
Adegoke / Life University Athletics Photo
“KB [Kaitlyn Broughton] had really good footwork and is hard to tackle. Susie does it in a different way,” Chou compared the 2018 graduate to the current freshman. “[Adegoke] is slippery where KB will step you and then run over you. Susie slithers out of things and, somehow, always keeps the ball alive.”
Chou indicated that 6-7 first-year players will be heading to Greenville, S.C., this weekend for the DI Elite semifinal against Penn State. In advance of what will no doubt be the team’s toughest game so far this season, Life enjoyed a confidence-boosting win two weekends ago during Senior Day. The Running Eagles hosted sister club Atlanta, which featured many WPL players like Lovelace, Swift, Broughton, Cortney Kuehl, Mo Compito and visiting Eagle flyhalf Gabby Cantorna. Ohmann was also playing. The Harlequins’ WPL side scored the second-most points (behind Glendale) last season and averaged 40 points per regular-season game. On March 9, Life won 34-10.
Photo: Tabitha Sneed Lowe
“Teams are obviously different in the spring, but Atlanta has so many good players,” said Chou, who coached both the Harlequins and Running Eagles on the day.
“I hadn’t complimented their defense this season,” the coach said of Life. “Atlanta runs hard lines and they can score points, and the fact that they were held to under their average made me extremely happy with the growth and development of this team over the season. Defense had been a focal point because we had been letting in too many points. … So to see that team perform on Senior Day was great.”
Senior Karen Faget bids farewell / Photo: Tabitha Sneed Lowe
Chou indicated that defense has become a point of pride for the team but that it’s not a finished product. The bullet-proofing process will continue during intra-squad scrimmages this week, and then Penn State will test the team’s resiliency on Sunday. Life has won the previous two games against Penn State – 29-26 in September and 17-15 in the 2018 DI Elite semifinals.
“The margin of error is so small. We know their strengths, and we hope to have some areas that we can exploit based on our personnel,” Chou sized up the Nittany Lions. “We know it will come down to the wire, and we have to be able to make good, clear decisions the entire game.”
Sunday’s the first game of the school year that holds any real consequence. The DI Elite teams don’t have to qualify for the post-season, which is only two weekends long and three games in total. Chou likes this set-up compared to those double-header weekends, because one game per weekend allows for the best product, the best rugby to feature on the pitch. It does mean, however, that a loss Sunday is the end of 15s for the year.
Fallon / Photo: Tabitha Sneed Lowe
“We can’t think of every scenario,” Chou explained how the team prepares for pressure by replicating certain situations at training. “So we might give a yellow card, ‘This personnel is out. Do you ask for a scrum or lineout for this penalty?’ Or we might run extra defenders against them to add some pressure. We’ll have men’s team players in the lineout, and they have to compete and hit against the guys. ‘This is what lineouts will be like against Penn State, because they’re bigger than us.’
“You prepare as much as you can but it’s really about adapting when things don’t go as planned,” the coach concluded. “What will it look like when things don’t go our way?”
Answers to those important questions will occur at 1 p.m. ET Sunday, when Life and Penn State contest the second DI Elite semifinal of the day at Furman University (Greenville, S.C.). USA Rugby has not circulated live-stream details, but Chou assured that Life’s Sports Information Department will have the equipment and resources to live-stream its game. The question is whether it will then be fed through USA Rugby’s channels. Central Washington and Lindenwood play at 11 a.m. ET and there’s no information yet on a live-steam.