Davon Thomas carving through Twin Cities. /// Photo courtesy Lindenwood Women’s Rugby
All of the DI Elite teams took different approaches to preparing for the post-season. Lindenwood played an all-15s fall with a couple of double-header weekends, and then filled the spring with both 7s tournaments and more 15s friendlies. The mix was intentional and has further-reaching motivations.
“It hasn’t been the easiest splitting the spring between 7s and 15s, but the core skills are the same, and it helps build smart, flexible rugby players,” Lindenwood coach Billy Nicholas said. “We haven’t focused on building toward the DI Elite playoffs. Our underlying goal is player development, and that started with our decision to go independent conference-wise, so we can find those opportunities through more diverse competition.”
This spring, Lindenwood played its 15s against senior clubs Twin Cities Amazons (WPL/DII), DI Chicago, and DII Scioto Valley and Louisville – winning all four matches. The Missouri side was runner-up at the Las Vegas Invitational, third at the Atlanta 7s Festival, and won its USA Rugby 7s qualifier in March.
“In general, our team is filled with youth,” the coach said. “We’re still very much a growing program, and the emphasis is progress. Out of our 23-person roster, 11 are freshmen and 15 are in their first year at Lindenwood.”
Morgan Crowell is one of the few seniors on the pitch and leads the forward pack along with fellow captain Laura Enk in the front row. Freshman Lia Fetineiai-Ili from the now-defunct Orem Lady Stallions has been very consistent this year and empowers the scrum from lock. Sophomore AnnaKaren Pedraza was named to the U20 player pool in her first year at scrumhalf, and her quick delivery and decision-making continues to improve.
The backline is one of the most recognizable in the college game today, and it begins with Women’s Junior All American McKenzie Hawkins at flyhalf. Morgan Courtney, Hannah Gauthreaux and Neariah Persinger are all well known players who’ve played select side ball internationally. ICEF graduate Jennese Bacon has earned a starting position on the wing, as has Davon Thomas who is now back to form after injury.
“I think it’s one of the best back lines in the nation,” Nicholas said. “Skill wise, every single one of them is a threat with ball in hand. If we can piece it all together and execute, we’ll be dangerous.”
Lindenwood faces Life University in Saturday’s DI Elite quarterfinal. The teams played each other in the fall (25-14 win to Life) and have seen each other in recent 7s matches.
“The outcome wasn’t what we wanted, but in the fall, we put too much emphasis on the opposition instead of staying true to our game plans,” Nicholas said. “The team has matured since then. We know what Life likes to do – they have the ability to strike from all over the pitch – but we’ve been focusing on us and our ability to execute on game day.”
The Life vs. Lindenwood quarterfinal is arguably the best-matched game of the opening round, but both teams have just been delivered a handicap. Indiana University, which has been slated for the eastern DI Elite quarterfinals since the competition was announced in fall 2015, withdrew from the tournament yesterday, April 20. With only three days’ notice, USA Rugby was forced to award Indiana’s quarterfinal opponent, Penn State, a bye into Sunday’s semifinals. Penn State is the team to beat, and an extra day’s rest will be influential.
Regardless of what evolves, Lindenwood is viewing the DI Elite competition in the context of the future.
“One reason many of the players came here is to help grow something,” Nicholas said. “They’re not coming to a national championship program and continuing its success, they’re figuring out how to create a national championship program. How can I contribute to the team aspect and get us there? I think they’re all excited to be a part of it. They’re definitely excited for this weekend and the energy’s been picking up. I’ve just got to keep them focused, to bottle up that energy and let it out for game time.”
Life and Lindenwood will contest their quarterfinal at 11 a.m. EDT Saturday, and the Sunday semifinal will occur at 12 p.m. No streaming information has been circulated at this time.