Kicking off a DI Elite return / Photo: Jackie Finlan
Of all the teams featuring in Sunday’s DI Elite semifinals, Central Washington has had the most trying buildup. The Wildcats are in a transition period, as Trevor Richards approaches his first full year as head coach and the varsity program still searches for its best competition alignments. There is a long-term plan underway, but in the short term, that has meant some growing pains.
Richards was appointed interim head coach in fall 2017 but wasn’t officially hired until May 2018. That made recruitment for the 2018-19 year difficult, although not fruitless, and the roster is a little thin on numbers.
“I’ve been blessed to inherit a number of players who are really good people and talented as well,” Richards said. “With that said, with a new coach comes a new structure and a new way of doing things. And the team culture has shifted.”
Field captain Leah Ingold (flyhalf), forwards captain Joanna Moreira (back row) and backs captain Spencer Boldt (fullback) are the on-field leaders. Richards also pointed to the hard-working Bianca Ortiz-Pallen, All-American flanker Michel Navarro and Eagle center Sui A’au, whom coach called a “silent assassin” in terms of leadership style, as influential juniors for the younger classes.
Pasioles / Photo: Jackie Finlan
“Of the current players to build around, Maryjane Pasioles is one of the big ones,” Richards looked toward the younger classes. “She’s at scrumhalf now but has been getting reps at flyhalf. She’s got a good personality, knows rugby really well, and is one of the most natural rugby players we have – which is probably a big reason why the USA is looking at her.”
The coach was also very complimentary of first-year rugby player Brooke Mullins, who took to the sport after an athletic career in track and field, soccer and wrestling. Mullins played win in the fall and then moved the back row, where the wrestling background is coming in handy.
These players are important for building a foundation off which the Wildcats can launch, especially considering that the next two recruitment classes will be crucial to the program’s future.
“I’ve been recruiting non-stop,” said Richards, who has scouted the CRCs, Hawaii, Salt Lake City, Boise and Las Vegas and has a dense summer calendar that hopefully crosses into British Columbia as well.
Coach Richards scouting in Vegas / Photo: Jackie Finlan
“I cast a very wide net,” he continued. “We’re hitting the reset button and looking for upward of 15 freshmen next year and an equal amount the following year. So the long-term projection is great. Sure, there will be a steep learning curve and adjustments will need to be made, and we’ll lose a couple players along the way, but this is why the next two classes are so important.”
Part of the reset is finding the right competition layout across the school year. Central Washington was a founding member of the DI Elite and then transitioned to NIRA, the country’s NCAA varsity league, for the subsequent two seasons. Being the only West Coast NIRA member made life difficult, and although Central Washington still counts toward the 40 varsity programs needed for full NCAA championship status, the Ellensburg team returned to the DI Elite for the 2018-19 season.
Navarro / Photo: Jackie Finlan
But the move didn’t necessarily improve the Wildcats’ schedule, and all of the DI Elite teams are discontent with the current post-season. Among the suggestions for next year is a 15s national championship in the fall, which would eliminate an excruciatingly long build-up to this two-weekend post-season in the spring. Central Washington is also actively communicating with fall and spring conferences in hopes of mirroring Penn State’s relationship with the Big 10. The shift would make way for a proper 7s season in the spring and build-up to nationals, and in Central Washington’s case, also open up Canada, where the competition windows are just out of step with the Wildcats at present.
“We’ll have six games before playoffs and we’re going against the top team in the country. That’s not an enviable position,” Richards summarized the team’s current situation. “But it is what it is.”
On Sunday, Central Washington plays Lindenwood for the third time this year. The Lions won the Feb. 23 match 39-5 in St. Charles, Mo., and it was a brutally physical game that sidelined some players.
Boldt / Photo: Jackie Finlan
“That’s probably one reason we’re not too excited to play each other again,” Richards said. “Whoever goes through to the final, there will be 1-2 players who won’t be available [due to injury]. That’s just the nature of the game.”
But that’s not to say that Central Washington isn’t eager to play, especially after its reaffirming 42-12 win over BYU two weekends ago. The victory came at just the right time, after back-to-back road losses against Lindenwood and Life West.
“It only takes a couple of losses for players to start doubting themselves, so it was exciting to watch them play the way we – the coaches – knew they could, just with consistency,” Richards said. “That last game against BYU was our best of the season, and it was good for setting tone and momentum heading into playoffs. It was an important confidence booster too.”
Photo: Jackie Finlan
The BYU game coincided with a recruitment event, so there were eight players on campus to watch the Wildcats beat the Cougars.
“There’s no pressure on the players,” Richards said of Sunday. “Let’s be honest, Lindenwood has more pressure because they’re ranked number one. They might have an underdog mentality but in reality, they aren’t the underdogs. We are.”
Furman University (Greenville, S.C.) is hosting the Sunday, March 24 semifinals, and Central Washington and Lindenwood kick off at 11 a.m. ET. Life University and Penn State follow at 1 p.m. ET, and the two victors advance to the DI Elite National Championship on Sunday, April 7 at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. There is no third-place game. Live-stream details have not yet been circulated.