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Close Loss Sharpens UConn for Playoffs

  • 14 Nov 2019

The University of Connecticut (UConn) is the only team in the East that has an automatic berth to the USA Rugby DI Fall College Championship quarterfinals. The Huskies secured that spot after winning the Northeast conference championship last weekend, a repeat title that evolved after a late-season gut check.

RELATED: USA Rugby DI Fall College Championship Bracket (maneuver between competitions via tabs at bottom of doc)

The Huskies bid farewell to long-time head coach Mark Jordan at the end of the spring 2019 season, but the Englander groomed former players and assistant coaches Gabby Benitez (’16) and Taylor Edinger (’14) to take over as co-coaches this season.

“There is a natural pressure assumed when you take over a successful program, but we were both coached by our predecessor, Mark Jordan,” Edinger explained. “He has mentored us over the last few years and we still maintain a close relationship with him. He is our biggest supporter.”

Edinger is a former lock and No. 8 with Collegiate All-American experience, and recurring injuries encouraged a transition to coaching, first with Jordan and then assisting Southern Connecticut State University for two years. Benitez has also served in multiple coaching roles since graduation, spending three years with UConn and the Southington High School girls’ team, as well as a year with Southern Connecticut. A three-year backs captain with the Huskies, Benitez’s expertise is in the backs, but asserted that responsibilities are delegated evenly between the two co-coaches.

“It’s a positive experience coaching alongside someone who has different strengths, but Gabby and I have walked in step for eight years now,” Edinger noted. “We started as rookies, served as team captains, worked as assistant coaches, and now lead as co-head coaches, something that is unconventional in sport. Gabby and I have always maintained a mutual respect on a level playing field and that is why we work well together.”

A combination of experience and new talent kitted up this fall, and that mixture was distributed evenly between the pack and backs. Numbers remained strong and the Huskies were once again able to field a full B side, a beneficial attribute when preparing for the post-season. Forwards captain Jennie Wingard and backs captain Allison Gorman lead the on-field performance from hooker and fullback, respectively, and they get solid support from influential veterans like flanker Amy Jones, scrumhalf Abby Gosselin and center Ellen Chirikos. Together they set the tone for the squad and serve as the example after which promising talent like prop Karina Escobar and wing Keisha Durden model themselves.

UConn synced up quickly and won its first four conference games 235-5. Northeastern was also 4-0 when the teams readied for their final regular-season match, but the Maddogs had required more time to solidify its team game. As a result, Northeastern had played some tight games and spent quality time on defense during the fall. On Oct. 26, Northeastern beat UConn 24-22, serving the Huskies their first regular-season loss in a very long time.

The result didn’t derail UConn’s post-season – the team took the second seed into the conference semifinals instead of the first seed – and provided useful information going forward.

“Our loss to Northeastern came at a good time in the season; it allowed us to make necessary adjustments within our conference play and reminded us of the importance of every single game moving forward,” Edinger explained. “It forced us to practice differently with an emphasis on executing a more dynamic defense, as we hadn’t been previously contested in that way all season. It lit a fire in us that was noticeable in the conference championship.”

In the Northeast semifinals, UConn beat Boston 37-12 while Northeastern topped UMass 52-17. That set up a rematch for the Nov. 10 conference final, with an automatic berth to the USA Rugby fall quarterfinals at stake.

“We started the game with a much higher level of intensity and tempo to our offense,” Benitez contrasted the two games against Northeastern. “We stressed how important it was to maintain this energy until the very end of the game.”

UConn beat Northeastern 51-5 for the repeat conference championship.

“Both the previous loss to Northeastern and the conference final win sparked a camaraderie that will fuel positive energy going into regional playoffs,” Edinger considered the overall impact of the Maddogs this fall.

There are two sites for the fall regional playoffs: The East will compete at Poughkeepsie, N.Y. (Vassar College), and the West will head to Columbia, Mo. The East bracket will be finalized Saturday evening after the three quarterfinal play-ins unfurl. UConn will face the winner of Michigan State vs. Pittsburgh in the fall quarterfinals on Nov. 23. Davenport and Northern Iowa, and Northeastern and Navy are also competing this weekend for a trip to the Hudson Valley.

“It is anyone’s game and it is difficult to draw conclusions about other teams from year to year,” Benitez wrapped up. “We have a strong and excited group of players that are proud to be back in the regional playoffs.”

Click here for the DI fall brackets (toggle to competition via the tabs at the bottom of the spreadsheet) and stay tuned for updates this Saturday.

UConn Northeast

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