There are fewer than 2,000 undergrad and graduate students at John Brown University, but the Siloam Spring, Ark., school is one of, if not the, leading Division II program in Mid-America – and it’s the team’s third year in existence.
“This is now our third competitive year and all of our first-generation team founders have all graduated,” explained John Brown head coach Jarrod Heathcote. “So we are going through that transition of original leaders leaving and the second and third generations now taking point. It’s good but also different.”
Captain Mary Freeman and president Dani Argueta – two solid forwards – and scrumhalf Karlie Bright, the match secretary, are in the middle of the leadership changeover. They are three of 12 returners who helped the team win the Mid-America conference last year and then go 1-1 at the DII spring regional championships.
Heathcote indicated that the backline is solid this year. Bright and flyhalf Alexis Barnes get the attack moving, and center Julia Hightower makes ground through the middle and in connecting with the back three of Mo Quarles, Vashti Smith and Anna Carlson.
“Smith has had a great year and is our top try scorer. Bright and Barnes are always creating great opportunities, and Carlson has been solid on defense this year,” Heathcote praised. “We have two rookies who played touch footy growing up and have adjusted well to the game,” in terms of contact.
John Brown beat Truman State 73-12 and Benedictine 79-10 in the fall to lead the Mid-America standings. But the team was really intentional about scheduling games outside of the conference during the fall, noting how valuable that experience would be in the post-season.
“First, we knew we wanted to play Tulane again prior to the post-season. Our teams really connected and there was a mutual respect just from one game – another reason I love rugby,” Heathcote lauded the reigning DII spring champion, which John Brown faced in the spring Round of 16 in 2018. “So we kept in touch and I think that was the very first game we scheduled for this season.”
In the same spirit, John Brown looked to support Pitt State, a new, local team that hosted a fall tournament. There, the team played Oklahoma and Wayne State College. The NSCRO 7s and 15s national champion won the match-up with John Brown.
And then in early December, John Brown played, and beat, Tulane.
“The Tulane game was important to us,” Heathcote explained. “We used it as our motivation for the first half of the season. We got to get ready for Tulane. We knew we needed to play well and we wanted to win.
“We learned a lot by playing outside our conference and feel excited to play our in-conference to finish up the regular season,” the coach added.
This weekend kicks off four-straight weeks of league matches, beginning with Arkansas on Saturday, and then the always-tough Kansas State on Feb. 16. Mizzou (Feb. 23) and Central Missouri (March 2) follow, and then the conference playoffs aren’t until a month later, April 6-7.
“I think we have a good chance of making it back to [the spring championships] and we are hopeful that we will make it further this year than last,” Heathcote predicted. “That’s been our goal – to always improve each year – and the new leaders have taken up that mantel that the founders had: Improve each season and push further than before.”
Mid-America conference: https://usarugbystats.com/competition/991
Mid-America union: https://www.midamericarugby.com/