Alex Ho photo (hoiho.net)
For the second-straight year, Lindenwood University is the DI Elite 15s and Elite 7s national champion, and the Lions are going for another trifecta this weekend at the CRC 7s in Chester, Pa. The St. Charles, Mo., program is the team to beat, but the opposition isn’t far behind.
“We like to be a team that is able to take a loss or a deficit and come back from it,” Lindenwood coach Billy Nicholas reflected on 7s runs as well as the 14-point deficit to Life during the DI Elite 15s final. “We lost a pool play match last year against PSU and came back to win the final with a pretty good point differential, and then the same thing happened again this tournament.”
Last weekend in Tucson, the Lions dropped a 15-12 decision to Dartmouth on day one and used that defeat to tighten up its game.
“It’s very much a motivating factor for the team, as they are all extremely competitive,” Nicholas noted. “We examined the footage pretty thoroughly and made some tweaks of emphasis.”
Those adjustments were immediately clear with the onset of day two. In the Cup semifinals, Lindenwood built a 26-point lead against Harvard before winning 36-7. Dartmouth, meanwhile, defeated Life University 26-7 to advance to the title match.
“Our goal going into the final was to keep the ball alive on attack, as we know we have the ball-handling skills to move it around and allow something to open up in the defense and exploit it,” Nicholas summarized strategy. “We were a bit flat in attack for the pool play match and didn’t give ourselves enough time to create anything. We also wanted to make better decisions around the defensive breakdown, being a bit more disciplined in our pressure there, and we definitely did that. We played the type of match we knew we were capable of in the final.”
Caring De Freitas / Photo: Jackie Finlan
The game sat at 12-7 to Lindenwood midway through the second half and then MVP Caring De Freitas’ try and Annakaren Pedraza conversion pushed the lead out to 19-7. A minute later, however, the Lions surrendered a yellow card, and it was an opportunity for Dartmouth to surge.
“We go through a lot of different scenarios during trainings, whether it’s down 1 or 2 [players], creating chaotic situations and just really being able to keep a calm state of mind,” Nicholas reflected on the team’s composure in the waning minutes of the final. “I do believe that prep helps us in high-pressure contests and situations, so that we are able to close out and finish the way we would like.”
The Lions held the Big Green off the scoreboard and instead added one more try through Teresa Bueso-Gomez for the 24-7 win and third-straight USA Rugby College 7s National Championship.
Bueso-Gomez / Photo: Jackie Finlan
Lindenwood does have a special class of players leading the way right now, with notables like Bueso-Gomez, De Freitas, Pedraza, McKenzie Hawkins, Nika Paogofie-Buyten, Sativa Tarau-Peehikuru, Kodi Barlow and more serving prominent roles in the team’s ascension as a national power.
“As far as standouts go, I thought everyone had a couple of great moments in each of the matches,” Nicholas praised the group. “We have a very unselfish style of play and we haven’t ever relied on one or two players to create or score consistently for us. They do a great job of spreading it around and setting each other up really well. Each of them bring a different strength to the table and when they are clicking and playing to those strengths they are really tough to stop and fun to coach.”
McKenzie Hawkins / Photo: Jackie Finlan
The Tucson squad also showcased Richelle Stephens, who returned to the team in the spring and injected a calming presence; and Charity Tenney, who joined the Lions with a torn ACL and then re-injured early in her collegiate career.
“She did well. She needs to regain her confidence in what she can do with the ball in her hand so I think the longer she stays healthy she’ll get back in her groove again,” Nicholas noted the Utah player’s comeback. “She sees the game even better than she ever has, just need to get that physical piece back.”
A trio of influential freshmen also received good field time in Tucson.
Morgan Freeman / Photo: Jackie Finlan
“The freshmen have been getting good time in at the majority of our 7s tournaments, from Vegas to Tropical and this one as well,” Nicholas surveyed the player pool. “Aniya Matina, Morgan Freeman and Nohea Uluave all have really bright futures ahead with us and have been great contributors the entire season.”
The CRC 7s will be the final fixture of the school year, and Lindenwood spent the week at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix training for the event. Nicholas indicated that the squad is feeling loose and no pressure to repeat the trifecta. The team may have a target on its back but also knows it’s resilient enough to adjust to the field closing in.