All programs endure cycles, and when a big graduation class comes through, the assumption is, especially at the DII collegiate level, that a rebuilding year will follow. Onlookers and competitors will look toward the performance on the pitch but there’s equally important work done on the mental side of the game, and the combination of such has helped Fresno State return to USA Rugby DII College Spring Championship semifinals for the second-straight year.
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Players who returned for the 2018-19 season knew it’d be difficult to replicate the achievements of the team previous – one that helped set program firsts and graduated two All-Americans.
“Early on in the season we came together and decided that we were going to set some pretty big goals,” Fresno State backs coach Amber Cluff recalled. “With losing half of our experienced starters, we could have felt vulnerable, but instead these girls took the fact that half of our starting squad last year were rookies, and now returners! We had an awesome group of returners commit to repeating a trip to the postseason, and an amazing recruitment group by in to our crazy goals!”
The West Coast conference is 10 teams large and for the Bulldogs the regular season ran from November-March. The competition escalated at the right time, and games against Saint Mary’s College and UN Reno were particularly valuable.
“Having incredible opposition over the last six weeks has been a game-changer for us,” Cluff explained. “We are subject to more injury, but the opportunity for maximum experience from getting to play 12 matches so far is incredible! Also, we feel like we are better prepared for the turnaround that needs to happen with a two-day, two-match format, by having that format the last two outings.”
The conference championship and western regionals embrace that competition format, and the trip to Irvine, Calif., produced wins against Long Beach State (90-22) and Saint Mary’s College (59-34). In spring quarterfinal win over the Gaels, the scoreline was within 10 points until the final 10 minutes of the match.
“This group of young women have learned to adapt to what is happening during the match, whether it be our own or opponents’ strengths and weaknesses during the match, even the referee style,” Cluff explained the benefits of facing tough, different competition. “Their rugby IQ and their experience is developing every match. They continue to strive to stay positive and have fun, to actually enjoy playing, even when we are down in points.”
In addition to the spring quarterfinal, Fresno State had to rally back from first-half deficits during both conference playoff games.
“We understand we have the opportunity to feel out our opponents and find out what’s working, what’s not, what we can improve upon, what we need to shut down and what to fix,” Cluff explained the second-half rebounds. “This group is not afraid to try things out in the first 40, because we have a whole other 40 to make changes and improve! We know these girls have a fighting spirit. We know they will give whatever is left in the tank, and give it their all.
“Overall, I feel like our adaptability, positivity, and desire are helping us overcome deficits and pull through in the end,” the coach added to the team’s ability to close out a match. “It’s exciting rugby and it’s stressful, and yet exhilarating at the same time! We are loving a good battle!”
The Bulldogs will face reigning champion Tulane University in the spring semifinals in Matthews, N.C., on Saturday, May 3 at 2 p.m.