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Bryant: Now They Know Us

  • 03 Jun 2019

Alex Ho photo

Bryant University entered the USA Rugby DII College 7s National Championship as a relatively unknown entity. The competition had to learn about the Rhode Island program and the Bulldogs adjusted to a new level of play. But after two days of sweltering heat and close games, Bryant University returned to the east coast with a 7s reputation and trophy.

RELATED: Bryant, Learning to Love 7sAlex Ho PhotosJeff Dalton Photos

“To be honest, it’s a big surprise for all of us,” Bryant head coach Rosie Downey said. “We didn’t know anything about any of the teams – we had heard about Babson – but really had no idea.”

Bryant played a 7s-only spring (save one title-winning trip to Beast of the East) through the New England College 7s Circuit and Rugby Northeast Qualifier, and then had a month to fundraise and prepare for the trip to Tucson.

“We basically worked a ton on defense. In my mind, if we could execute on defense then we could probably do a decent job with the rest,” Downey said of training. “On offense – someone called it ‘trick plays’ – but it’s more that we throw the ball around a lot more to draw in the defense. So on offense we worked on being more fluid with the ball.”

Bryant ended up playing four Californian teams and Bloomsburg (Pa.) at nationals, and kicked off the campaign against San Jose State. Championship MVP Melissa Mallahan scored the first try of the match, and that boost of confidence saw the team to a 22-12 win.

“The first game got the jitters out. We won a game at nationals! We weren’t even sure that was possible,” Downey said. “You saw a strong offense in that game, but I don’t know if San Jose was coming up that hard on defense, and they were sometimes confused on who to hit and when.”

The team had watched Cal Poly beat Bloomsburg 29-14 and knew the Mustangs would bring a tougher challenge to round two. The teams traded tries in the first half, and then Cal Poly dotted down on either side of the break. The Tucson heat started to assert itself and some continuity suffered as Bryant dipped into its reserves quicker or more frequently than usual. Cal Poly had the legs for a 20-12 win.

Championship MVP Mallahan / Photo: Alex Ho

“We really looked at the Cal Poly game in terms of what we can improve on,” Downey said. “They took advantage of holes in the defense, and were able to read who was pushing and who was planting their feet.”

Bryant got the job done in round three, defeating Bloomsburg 20-12, and ended the day 2-1 to advance to the Cup semifinals Sunday. Cal Poly and San Jose State went 2-1 as well, but the former dropped a 26-point game to the Spartans, and point differential rerouted the Mustangs to the consolation bracket.

“Sunday is a defense day,” Downey said of the team’s focus into knockouts. “Bryant didn’t have to work as hard on defense in the first game, and so the communication fell off a bit and the press was less intense. That loss in round two woke the team up.

Photo: Alex Ho

“This is what we’re fighting for,” the coach described the players’ renewed intensity. “It went from, ‘Happy to be top-four,’ to ‘We want number one.’ They realized this was the only shot they had.”

Claremont Colleges dominated its opponents in pool play, including a 28-15 win over Fresno State, and lined up Bryant for the Sunday semifinal. Bulldogs flyhalf Sarah Felkel and prop Jenn Rosinski set the tone for a high-pressure, hard-working defense that forced Claremont into handling errors and even an obstruction call, courtesy of Felkel’s press, during an attempted switch.

That work afforded more opportunities on offense and Mallahan (2), Erica Lovering (2) and Nyatasha Jackowicz finished them with tries. Bryant won 27-7 to advance to the final.

“No one did anything differently at nationals than they’ve been doing all season,” Downey reflected on the tournament as a whole. “Erica Levering, a sophomore, is a wing in 15s and did well [in the fall], but we had another very fast wing, Courtney Wheeler, who is studying abroad [in 2019]. Erica flourished this spring and I’ve been impressed with her every weekend, just seeing her play, how she runs support lines with Melissa [Mallahan], jumps into every ruck, poaches, and she communicates very loudly on defense. … Everyone else was playing as strong as they had all season long.”

Photo: Alex Ho

On the other side of the bracket, Fresno State defeated San Jose State 26-10 to advance to the final. Defense was still central to the team’s strategy but Bryant knew it had to account for incredibly fast finishers in players like Meaghan Gallagher and Chetna Kumar-Naicker.

“We knew we had to shut them down there,” Downey said of the concern out wide. “We had to control the ball in the middle of the field so it couldn’t make it out to the wing. We have fast people, too, who could probably catch their wings, but that’s not what we wanted it to come down to.

“If the ball gets past [Rosinski and Felkel] then Melissa Mallahan, our outside center in 15s, has more of a blitz defense. She’ll shoot up fast and then follow the ball,” Downey said. “That allows our wing, Erica Levering, to play softer. If Melissa missed it, then Erica caught it. The whole line works well together.”

Scrumhalf Margaret Mellitt is the final defender at sweeper, and as one of the fastest players on the team, does well to chase down breakaways and prevent tries.

Photo: Alex Ho

“We’re all set up at a point where we push until we can’t anymore, then if there’s a break-through, we have a safety net set up,” Downey said.

Bryant kept the ball out of Fresno State’s hands and built a three-try lead into the second half. Then Fresno State started its comeback.

“A knock-on or forward pass gave them possession, and that was all it took for them to get the ball to the wing and score,” Downey said. “They came out of halftime a little stronger. Maybe we felt a little comfortable with our lead, and also a little tired.

“The entire second half was in question. Anything can happen in 7s, especially with the speed they have,” Downey reflected on the dwindling 17-0 lead. “When they scored at the end, they didn’t take the conversion because they had one more fighting chance [to win].”

But Bryant put a final kick to touch and sealed the 21-19 win.

“For them, it means everything they worked hard for has paid off,” Downey said of the championship’s significance. “I think they realized that even though there are times when we as coaches push them, and they don’t like it, it’s for a good reason.

Photo: Alex Ho

“No one knew who Bryant was coming in. We were pushed aside as just another team that showed up,” the coach thought of other implications. “But now everyone is watching us and it creates more – not anxiety, but a new standard of how we are going to play and what we do, in 7s and 15s.”

Bryant will graduate five seniors this year and return 13 to begin the fall 15s season. Numbers are a constant struggle for the school but the program hopes this national championship title will stoke more interest.

“I’m in complete awe of this team and everything they’ve accomplished,” the coach concluded. “They’ve won four different trophies this year. All of Bryant Rugby, 20 years, has won six trophies. It’s crazy to see what the team has done this year, and it’s the same people who do the same things over and over, across a very long season.”

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