BYU is competing toward USA Rugby’s DI College Spring Championship for the first time since the DI Elite and seasonal championships formed in 2015-16 season. That said, not much has changed for the Cougars in that the Provo, Utah, program still plays an independent schedule until regional playoffs arrive. But, some realignments could be in BYU’s near future.
BYU Head Coach Tom Waqa indicated that the player pool is similar to years past, with a handful of experienced upperclassmen – especially captains Grace Taito, Elle Peterson and Kainoa Ah Quinn – leading the way for the team and its bright newcomers. The Cougars were able to recruit some high schoolers with rugby experience, and they pair nicely with crossovers who have great potential in their new sport.
“The trend is typical – more crossovers than experienced players,” Waqa said of the recruits. “But this year I noticed an increase in the crossovers’ athleticism, size and just the raw materials needed to build a rugby player. In that regard, it’s been different from last year.”
Former soccer player Heather Erickson has done particularly well on the wing. She played her first rugby game last weekend against Central Washington, and matched up well against the DI Elite side. Just a sophomore, Waqa sees a player from which the team can build.
But overall, last weekend was not a success so much as a re-launching point. The B side played Boise State on Friday and won that friendly easily (Boise State has forfeited games in the DI Pacific Mountain North this season). And then the A side took on Central Washington for the teams’ second game of the school year. In the fall, the Cougars took a 35-26 win at home, but on Saturday, the Wildcats won the overall series with a 42-12 victory.
“This relationship is very valuable for the development of players because Central Washington plays at a really high level. It’s good to go there and learn and get a humbling experience like last Saturday,” Waqa said. “We played down a level from when we played them in October, and Central Washington really stepped it up. You can tell it’s the result of playing really good teams. They’re coming off of Life West and Lindenwood, and they were ready for us.”
The game against Central Washington was the A side’s first real 15s game of 2019, and Waqa used the opportunity to play some untested players against elite competition.
“But that’s not an excuse,” Waqa said of missing starters and lack of field time. “Central Washington played really well and we did not. There are a lot of areas to work on, and it’s on the coaches to prepare the team. It was a real eye-opener.
Influential freshman Matalasi Morrissette vs. CWU senior flyhalf Leah Ingold (BYU photo)
“We didn’t bring the right attitude and intensity either,” the coach continued. “But most of the upgrades we need to make are just mechanical, technical. The players are definitely motivated and optimistic that we can bounce back and have a good showing at playoffs.”
But BYU won’t have a real opportunity to mark its progress before the DI Spring Rounds of 8/4 on April 19-20 at UC Irvine. In the fall, BYU was able to play a full schedule, as the Rocky Mountain conference teams remain loyal to the Cougars and add them as friendlies en route to their DI fall championship. But come springtime, those schools are in 7s mode, and the Pacific Mountain and Pacific Desert conferences are in-season starting in mid-January. So if BYU wants good games, it needs to travel well out of its region. Central Washington is in a similar situation in that it has to build a competitive independent schedule, but the Wildcats also have access to Canada. BYU used to have a great relationship with Canada’s Lethbridge but is not allowed to travel internationally anymore.
“I don’t know that it’s different than any other year. Field time is always the challenge. We might have one or two fewer games heading into playoffs this year, but again, that’s no excuse,” Waqa said. “We had a busy fall – we went 11-0 – and most of the players have been here before.”
BYU will play local teams until playoffs and is hoping something comes together with Life West, which would be a great test. The Cougars will be joined by two Pacific Mountain and a Pacific Desert team in the western portion of the DI spring quarterfinals, and the team that goes 2-0 on April 19-20 will head to Matthews, N.C., for the final against the eastern finalist.
Looking ahead, however, Waqa indicated that BYU is looking at area competitions and has started talks with Pacific Mountain and Pacific Desert for potential inclusion in next year’s spring season.