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Cortland Exceeds Expectations with Nationals Berth

  • 02 Dec 2021

SUNY Cortland is like a lot of teams this year. Incoming goals for the fall 15s season revolved around rebuilding numbers, experience and relationships after a year lost to Covid – that is, until the wins kept coming. The Peacefrogs’ trajectory starts to depart from the masses at the conference and regional championship levels, and now the Upstate New York team is one of four small colleges heading to the National Collegiate Rugby championship in Knoxville, Tenn.

RELATED: Combined collegiate playoffs

Professors Ashley Crossway (’13) and Natalie DiMeglio (’17) are the current co-coaches at Cortland, where they both started their rugby careers as students. The alumnae were worried about numbers coming in – and not just hitting the 30-40 range to which the team is accustomed, but fielding a 15s team at all.

“We recruited 6-7 players this year, but the biggest testament [to the team’s rebuild] is the returning players and those who were just getting involved when Covid hit,” Crossway said. “They stayed engaged and were dedicated to coming back after a year-and-a-half, two years of not playing. Most of them were freshmen and sophomores [in spring 2020] and were just getting their feet wet, and now they’re juniors and seniors getting their first true playing experiences. We still call them veterans because they’ve been on the team the longest, but they had very little match experience before the fall.”

The team isn’t bereft of leadership, and captains Claire Brandon and Kailey Gleeson have been crucial to the health of the team out of the pandemic.

“During the spring 2021 flex we had, they were leading captains practices by themselves, just trying to engage women with the sport of rugby even though we were running around in masks and playing games with flags because we couldn’t have physical contact,” Crossway said. “They did everything they could to build a team and community around rugby, and they kept the team going.”

The coaches also called out senior lock Lindsey Quinn. The team president did a lot of behind-the-scenes work needed for field time, equipment, matches on the schedule, and Quinn’s dedication provided opportunities for Cortland.

When the Upstate New York regular season commenced, Cortland did have lower numbers and less experience relative to years past, but most of rugby was experiencing similar conditions. The fall started with two shutout wins – 77-0 against Hamilton, 51-0 against Union – and then followed with an important game against Ithaca College.

“The first [turning point] was our first game against Ithaca,” Crossway said of the 53-17 win. “It was our third game and we were really starting to put the pieces of the game together. At that point they were ranked higher than us, and [that win] helped us see the potential in our team. We were being successful and beating teams ranked higher than us.”

Cortland advanced to the conference playoffs and lined up against St. Bonaventure University in the semifinal.

“That was the other turning point,” Crossway said of the 34-10 playoff win. “St. Bonaventure is a notoriously talented team in New York state, and across the board, and the team really came together for that game. That victory solidified our team and gave us the confidence we needed to go forward.”

As Cortland made these gains, the initial goals of just fielding a team and rebuilding the base began to evolve. The coaches also noted that a second layer of players were embracing more prominent roles on the pitch.

“All of the younger and less experienced players were just stepping up, but there were a couple players who we could see had that potential to fill the shoes of our seniors,” Crossway said. “One example is Anna [Reinshagen], our scrumhalf. She is brand new to rugby and she took on that important position, calling plays and being a leader on and off the field.”

Cortland advanced to the Upstate New York final against Ithaca, which had defeated Rochester 19-14 in the conference semifinals. The coaches noted that Ithaca did not field its strongest team due to injuries, and Cortland won 54-0 for the league title.

The Peacefrogs have oscillated between Division II and small college competitions the last decade. Cortland qualifies as a small college and DiMeglio was on the 2016 team that made a deep NSCRO run. Since then, Cortland has opted for Division II, and in 2019, the team got past the Wild Card round before falling 29-17 to Bryant in the Round of 16. Collegiate rugby restructured big time when USA Rugby went bankrupt, and Cortland has since realigned with NCR.

While the NCR DI regional championship evolved without incident, there were multiple last-minute cancellations in the small college bracket. That said, the regional championships in Syracuse, N.Y., ran a full state of games. Cortland advanced alongside Rochester, which took Ithaca’s vacated seed to the Round of 16. Cortland held the number one seed in the pool and Rochester the fourth, so the two Upstate New York teams faced each other on Nov. 13.

“We were coming off that high of winning the state and were firing on all cylinders for regionals,” Crossway said. “But that weekend was a great equalizer. It was not optimal weather.”

Wet, cold, muddy conditions prevailed, and it asked the big question: Which team will adapt best?

“The weather didn’t necessarily play into our mindset, but we made considerations for the style of play based on the conditions,” Crossway said. “It didn’t play in our favor because we’re a forward-heavy team; we just adapted. It was making sure we weren’t kicking the ball too much. Being cautious with our passes and making sure your teammate was there. Avoiding pop passes and getting the ball to ground. So we did slow the game down in a way, but not because we’re forward heavy. We have a balanced team.”

Cortland beat Rochester 28-10, while Endicott College topped Middlebury 32-22 in its Round of 16 game. The following day, Cortland beat higher-ranked Endicott 34-10 in the quarterfinals.

“They want it,” DiMeglio said. “Every time they play, they want to go out and put on a show. I can’t say it enough, the players are so dedicated to supporting one another when it comes to playing in a game. It was sleeting, snow, ice, all during regionals. It eased up on Sunday but players were coming out of the game cold and soaking wet from the mud or whatever they were rolling around in, and they definitely played their hearts out.”

Cortland beat the weather, the double-header fatigue, a higher-ranked team, and emerged from the high-stakes weekend a more confident, hungry team.

“We have been more successful than we could have ever imagined,” Crossway reflected on the team’s incoming goals this season. “We were so excited to win Northeast regionals but then it was followed by this panic of how we were going to fund a trip to Tennessee. We’re pretty fortunate and very thankful for the fans, families, alumni and supporters who helped us raise the money to get there.”

Cortland and Lee University contest the first national semifinal at 9 a.m. ET this Saturday. Wayne State College and Northern Michigan follow at 11 a.m., and the two victors will contest the national champio
nship on Sunday at 11:30 a.m.

“We’re excited to make it back and be in Tennessee,” said Crossway, who noted that dry, warmer weather in Knoxville will be a welcome change from the snow in Upstate New York. “We’re going to play our style of rugby and make each other happy – that’s our goal. Do what we can and put our hearts out there, and be proud that we left everything on the field.”

For more information, visit the event home page.

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