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Northern Michigan Reps Great Waters at Nationals

  • 04 Nov 2021
Northern Michigan rugby

Northern Michigan University is the Great Waters conference champion and advances to the National Collegiate Rugby (NCR) regional playoffs. The small college will play its Round of 16/8 games in Elkhart, Ind., on Nov. 13-14. Games will also occur in Iowa Falls, Iowa; Syracuse, N.Y.; and Danville, Va. [All photos: Badger Kings (IG @badgerkings10)]

RELATED: All the playoff brackets

The Upper Peninsula team has been to regional playoffs before; in fact, senior captains Chance McDougal (backs) and Kaitlyn Bammel (forwards) were on that fall 2018 team as freshmen.

“We had a lot of players – at minimum 30 – and there were a lot of older girls,” Bammel said. “We won the conference with a very experienced team, but there wasn’t much pressure on us because we had a lot of people to rely on. Then everyone graduated, so our sophomore year was a rebuilding year.”

In fall 2019, junior and current president Rachel Placeway joined the team and brought a unique pedigree with her. Unlike McDougal and Bammel, who had no previous rugby experience before their freshman year, Placeway played in high school. Her mother, Carrie Diamond, played for UW Stevens Point in the mid-90s and then spear-headed the creation of the Stevens Point Area Senior High (SPASH) program. Placeway grew up in rugby.

Photo: Badger Kings (IG @badgerkings10)

That fall also marked the return of USA Eagle Tina Nesberg, who played basketball for Northern Michigan in the 90s. Bammel remembered both excitement and nerves when the Rugby World Cup veteran signed on, noting some intimidation when interacting with such an accomplished individual. McDougal recalled the team’s first training session with their new coach, who suggested and then followed through with a swim in Lake Superior.

“Is she crazy,” the backs captain laughed and reminisced. “But we all followed her. And then it was, ‘We like this lady.’”

“Tina has been really good for the team and I think everyone would agree,” Placeway added. “She’s more than a rugby coach and wants us to take care of ourselves mentally and physically, especially the recovery after games. She’s a licensed massage therapist so that’s very helpful for us, especially when you have two games in a weekend. Like everyone on the team, we’re a team off the field, too, and Tina really embodies that.”

Northern Michigan went undefeated during the fall 2019 league season, and then UW Platteville knocked the team out of playoffs in the first round. The team was readying for recruitment and more building in spring 2020, and then Covid-19 halted that momentum. The subsequent school year allowed for fitness and skills training, but the numbers weren’t great. There’s just one indoor facility on campus and practices were at off-peak hours and on the track.

Photo: Badger Kings (IG @badgerkings10)

“We didn’t get a lot of people but those who came were dedicated,” McDougal said. “That’s really all we could ask for.”

Placeway fed her desire to play by returning to her old high school team and helping the coaching staff.

“I was running up and down the sidelines like, ‘Put me in,” Placeway said.

“That’s Rachel for you,” McDougal laughed with Bammel.

But Placeway was worried about numbers for fall 2021. The team wasn’t able to build momentum during the pandemic, and a big recruitment push was needed.

“Personally, I didn’t see myself coming back this year,” McDougal said. “I had lost my love for rugby a bit and wasn’t dedicated to the team at that point. But after the first practice, I told Kaitlyn that I didn’t know how much I would miss this. Just the smell outside reminds you of all the fun times. I pictured our newbies experiencing all the traditions that we value so much, and that slideshow in my brain of the new players going through what I experienced my freshman year, it changed my mind after the first practice.”

Photo: Badger Kings (IG @badgerkings10)

Northern Michigan has 20 players, and the roster is approximately half new, half with 2-3 years of experience. The trio of leaders praised the newcomers’ ability to adjust, ask good questions and absorb information. They marveled at the team’s chemistry after such a short period of time. Assistant coach Carlie Root, who graduated from Central Michigan University, has also been a great asset to the newcomers, affording them extra attention.

“After a year off and not being to hit or tackle or play rugby, I’m just excited to be back on the pitch, have the team together, and to play with no restrictions,” Bammel summarized her mindset heading into the fall. “We knew it was a rebuilding year and didn’t know what to expect, but we’re thankful we have gone as far as we have with the team we’ve created so far.”

Northern Michigan had a mixed regular season in terms of results, but the games imparted valuable lessons that the team took into conference playoffs.

“We had an interesting season where two of our conference games were both forfeits,” Bammel said of the friendlies that followed. “We had already won those games before we showed up, so our newbies didn’t take them as seriously as we should have. They didn’t feel like real games. And then we played our first real game against Eau Claire and lost, and that woke us up and showed us what we needed to work on. We saw improvement in the [Michigan] Tech game but didn’t see our potential until last weekend.”

Photo: Badger Kings (IG @badgerkings10)

Northern Michigan took the second seed to the Great Waters’ small college playoffs last weekend and lined up against #3 seed UW Platteville in Saturday’s semifinals.

“I have been out for three weeks with an injury so I wasn’t able to play,” said Placeway, the regular flyhalf. “But watching from the sideline and seeing the girls come together and play as a team – that’s when everything clicked. On Saturday, they were doing all the things we had been working on during practice and integrating into how we play rugby now. Just wow.”

Univ. Michigan graduate Savannah Struble stepped into flyhalf in Placeway’s absence, and applied her experience and rugby IQ to the decision-making position. Placeway was still very active during rehab, finding film on opponents and making sure logistics were squared away. Her behind-the-scenes work has positioned the team for success, and she’ll rejoin the pitch going forward.

Northern Mich
igan won 29-10 for the berth to the Sunday final. Meanwhile, top seed Univ. Chicago defeated Michigan Tech 31-7 for the title berth.

“I had to hold back tears multiple times because I was so overwhelmed by how well we were playing and how much the team cared for each other on and off the field,” Bammel said of the final. “It was moving.

Photo: Badger Kings (IG @badgerkings10)

“In our forwards, everyone in the tight five except for our hooker is new,” the flanker continued. “At the beginning of the season we told them, ‘You’re going to get in a group of people and push against another group of people, and you’re going to win.’ These girls had no idea what was happening, and then watching them get low and drive the scrum last weekend, it was amazing to see. They’re in the starting lineup and carrying a huge part of the team. It’s prideful seeing them succeed.”

McDougal felt similarly about the backs’ progress.

“As a captain, part of your job is to tell teammates how capable they are, because they might not believe in themselves,” the center said. “They’re all very good learners and adapt well and are starting to come out of their shells. [Rebecca Cheeseman] transferred here from a local community college and has never played before. She came from water polo. She’s fast, tall and lanky, and once she understood her capabilities of running the ball, she’s done a great job. She played fullback this weekend and made some big tackles.”

Northern Michigan shut out Univ. Chicago 43-0 for the Great Waters title. The weekend provided a confidence boost but also experience in processing nerves during high-pressure situations, staying focused on the game at hand, and the recovery routine during doubleheaders. That intel will be useful in Indiana, the site of the team’s Round of 16/8 matches.

Photo: Badger Kings (IG @badgerkings10)

“Morale is very high right now and we’re eager to get there and see what happens,” McDougal said of regionals. “We really focus on what lies in front of us instead of ahead. So last weekend it was, ‘Platteville’s first, just get through that game.’ Then we played University of Chicago the next day. ‘Just get through that game and play the rugby we know how to play and give all you got.’ If you look too far ahead you get lost in what could be.”

Everything has come full circle for McDougal and Bammel, who were freshmen the last time they were at regionals. In fall 2018, Northern Michigan faced juggernaut Wayne State College in the Round of 16.

“It wasn’t as much on the line then because we were freshmen and we had three more years of rugby to play,” McDougal said. “But now it’s our last round, so it’s bittersweet and a bit emotional. There’s more on the line, but we just want to play our best rugby and leave with no regrets.”

The team is also motivated to play for those who can’t play, like Ashlyn Hughes, who has taken several injuries over the years but is a consistent supporter.

“And I just want to shout out our coach, Tina, because she has put her all into the team this season,” Bammel closed. “She was in the process of doing a lot stuff and just going through life things, and she put the team first. She did a t-shirt and sweatshirt order for us and paid for the whole thing. She respects us as players and people and that has given us the drive to go further knowing how coach feels about us.”

NCR supports DI and small college competitions, and they enter their respective Round of 16/8 post-season on Nov. 13-14. They’ll feature at the same four locations as well, and then the both will send their semifinalists to Life University in Marietta, Ga., for the national championship weekend.

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