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How to Survive a Struggling League

  • 02 Apr 2019

Two DII collegiate conferences are hosting smaller than usual playoffs this weekend. Both the Mid-America and Carolinas leagues are holding a stand-alone final, as opposed to the desired semifinal/championship weekends. This decrease in playoff participants is happening as the DII College Spring Championship has shifted its distribution of pools eastward in hopes of filling its Round of 16.

Rachel Pate is the commissioner of the Mid-America conference and also head coach of Women’s Rugby at Kansas State (KSU). The administrator explained that the schedule first featured seven teams, but then the University of Arkansas went social and dropped down to Division III. Excessive snow made long-distance travel treacherous, and teams’ battle with numbers also canceled games. Truman State started forfeited games in October, and by the end of the regular season, there were more cancelations than games played.

“It’s hard in Mid-America,” Pate said. “Lots of teams are player-coached. It’s rare to have a coach who is just a coach – like me and Jarrod [Heathcote at John Brown University] – and that makes such a difference. … There are smaller colleges in this area so people don’t necessarily stay around when they graduate. It’s not like big schools where graduates stay there. All player-coached teams have issues with numbers and getting people to practice, but this year, there have been even more problems than in the past.”

KSU played its first league game on Oct. 20 (62-12 win against Central Missouri), and then that was it in terms of league games. Every single game afterward went un-played. On one occasion, the team drove to Columbia, Mo., to face Mizzou, only to have the hosts discover that its pitch had flooded for game day. The teams scrambled for a replacement, but ultimately 10 hours on the road resulted in no rugby. Remarkably, Pate was able to see the silver lining.

“Even though we didn’t play in Mizzou, it was a good team-bonding experience,” Pate said. “Everyone was hanging out as a team, looking around for another field, so it was a good rugby day in that sense.”

Kansas State is fortunate in that it has a lot of returners, and that investment meant there wasn’t a big risk of losing players to lack of playing time. Pate did note that 2-3 newcomers dropped out, especially after icy, snowy weather delayed outdoor training until mid-March, a month later than usual. But veterans Lilly Smith and Kaylee Kipp have been instrumental in keeping player spirits high, and will be the ones to watch come this weekend’s final.

“From practice, I can tell we’re at about the same level as last year,” Pate said. “We’re working on our weaknesses – like making sure we get flat on the sides of rucks – but I’ve seen lots of improvement on communication. Stepping up at practice is a solid vet group that’s getting the rookies ready.”

Among those players stepping up are Jayne Bannister and Rachel Gumm, who has moved from prop to No. 8 and played for KSU when it was in the senior club ranks. They’re setting up newcomers like Mason East, who comes from football, and Emma Schumann, who is super committed to workouts and fitness, to develop into impactful players.

Fortunately, the team was able to get in a match against the Kansas Bison, a DII senior club team, on March 23. The teams tied 24-24, but more importantly, the outing gave Pate and the squad up-to-date information on its performance. This Saturday, April 6, will be even more valuable, as KSU will face undefeated John Brown in the league final. The Mid-America playoffs were originally scheduled as a final four, or at least a three-team play-in format like last year, but no other team could commit.

John Brown has been more fortunate in terms of field time and also played Tulane in December for a valuable indicator into its game. With that said, 2019 hasn’t been particularly kind to the Arkansas team either, so a good amount of rust will need shedding on Saturday.

Fortunately for Mid-America, the league has two seeds to the DII College Spring Round of 16, aka, regional championships. So while both finalists will be vying for the conference title, there’s no risk of not advancing to Little Rock for the April 20-21 regional championships. The teams will be joined by reigning DII spring champion Tulane and a to-be-named team (SIRC #3 Georgia Tech has declined its berth to regionals).

“We’re just excited to see a higher level of competition, and we only have 3-4 players who don’t have regionals experience, which is a positive for us,” Pate said. “We’re hoping through the years that we’ll develop a better competitive cycle in our own area.”

Pate is optimistic when it comes to rebuilding the league, as there is a DIII competition that allows for teams to keep playing during down years, or for new teams, to ramp up to DII levels. It’s a place where teams like Arkansas, Kansas University, Washington University, UM Kansas City, and the area’s most promising young teams – Pittsburg State and Washburn – can build momentum.

Stay tuned for coverage on the Mid-America championship as well as updates to the playoff bracket, which should be finalized by USA Rugby by April 8.

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