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Playoff-Bound Life J.V. Just Excited to Play

  • 11 Nov 2021

Photo: Star Stevens

Life University is competing toward the National Collegiate Rugby (NCR) DI title, but don’t expect to see Saher Hamdan, Su Adegoke, Autumn Locicero or any DI Elite All-Americans lining up against the mostly club field. Life and NCR were happy to collaborate but did so with an eye toward fairness, transparency and genuine care for the larger rugby community.

RELATED: NCR Confirms DI & Small College

Life University has fewer than 1,000 undergrads, but the rugby program draws solid numbers that fuel varsity and J.V. squads. Players come out of the high school ranks, transfer from other colleges or attend graduate programs. The team has also become a haven for club players who consider college later in life.

“People want to be here,” Life head coach Ros Chou said.

“We’re usually around 40-45 players, and when it comes down to championships, 23 get rostered,” the coach continued. “So half of the team doesn’t get to have that experience. That group is still there every day, training day in and day out, and helping the program as a whole.”

Life is a founding member of the DI Elite and has featured in the previous three title matches. In addition to USA Rugby’s college 7s championship, the Running Eagles were regulars at the CRC 7s, which NCR took over this year. Life returned to the event, now branded May Madness 7s, and started a new relationship with NCR.

Chou started talking with NCR Women’s DI Commissioner Angela Smarto with the hope of adding Life’s J.V. team to the fall 15s competition. There’s precedence there – Queens University of Charlotte started down that road in fall 2018 before joining NIRA – and Smarto is particularly open to flexible competitions. She’s commissioner of the Allegheny women’s conference, which is a tutorial in hybrid scheduling. To boot, Smarto played at Penn State and knows the challenge of scheduling games for a large squad with a national championship reputation.

“I know people don’t want teams to be able to double dip,” Chou touched on player movement between squads, “so when Smarto and I started working together, it was, ‘How can we create this experience, where we’re a part of NCR and everyone is comfortable with it?’”

The duo looked toward the Women’s Premier League when crafting player eligibility rules. None of Life’s starters from the 2021 DI Elite title match is eligible for this NCR season. And the diligent tracking of players’ minutes with the varsity and/or NCR sides will continue indefinitely.

Everything was in place administratively for fall 2021, but that didn’t necessarily mean that teams were clamoring to play Life. Match secretaries had filled up their calendars, and the one local game against Kennesaw State ended up being canceled (due to a Covid outbreak). Chou asserted that the KSU did try to make up the game but schedules conflicted. The Owls had attended Life’s pre-season camp, which took place at Rugby ATL headquarters (Life’s pitches are unplayable due to flood and remodeling), and are willing competition.

Freshman flyhalf Nina Mason / Photo: Star Stevens

“I reached out to a few teams and told them that it didn’t have to be 80 minutes. We can mix in, play silly games. We just want to be part of the rugby community,” Chou said. “That’s what we told Florida: We’re not looking to have lopsided games. And that’s why I love [Florida Rugby Union General Manager] Evan [Haigh]. He made it happen and now this team has seven [DI Florida conference] games starting in January.”

Chou also reached out to Lee University, which is heading to the NCR Small College playoffs this weekend.

“I talked to Chris [Martin] and Mike [Freake] and said, ‘Let’s just hang out and have a clinic,’ and it was a great time,” said Chou, who handed the reins to Life players. “We want to be part of the community and we’re willing to put in the work. That’s why we drove to Lee on a Monday night. If you play us, we’ll film the match and I will get on a Zoom call and we can go over it and I’ll tell you what I see. Or not. I’m not trying to come in and take over anything.”

The point is: Use Life.

In the end, the NCR team had one game to call its own: a 17-10 win against Lindenwood J.V. Aside from that Oct. 16 match, NCR players have featured in varsity’s extended-roster games. For example, during fall tour [Read more: Emerson on Tour], Chou ran out 33 players against Penn State. Same with New York Rugby Club a couple days later.

“We waited until varsity was up by a 3-4 tries and then J.V. got minutes,” Chou said. “They had to hold on for dear life against Penn State, and New York came back to win it.”

When Life flew to BYU for an Oct. 30 game, Cougars coach Tom Waqa also asked for an extended roster, affording more minutes to the NCR players who traveled. One regular 15s match and minutes against Penn State, BYU and New York Rugby Club – that’s a tough run-up to a post-season, but the program has been preparing the NCR team just like the varsity side.

“That was the commitment we made when we started a J.V. team,” Chou said. “They’re being treated like it’s the DI Elite season. We’re doing video analysis, coding, all that prep. And the varsity players have been great in helping prepare that squad.”

The J.V. team is mostly first- and second-year players. Two walk-ons are playing their first games ever this weekend. The pack is especially young, but captain Hannah Boekelman is leading the way there. In the back line expect freshman Nina Mason to stand out. The flyhalf has represented the USA U18s, and even while playing hooker for the age-grade team, she still managed to put her boot to good use. Chou is also excited to see sophomore Emma Fredlund-Adams go to work, as well as freshman Sarah Barsoum and sophomore Lyric Greenhill-Casados, who are learning behind wings Locicero and Adrionna Duncan, respectively.

Life is taking 19 players to Danville this weekend, so there are nerves about traveling light and people playing out of position (the team does have an injury clause). The team has zero intel on Round of 16 opponent Syracuse.

“They’re just excited to play,” Chou said. “It can be demoralizing. At every practice you’re getting smacked down by folks who are going to be in the World Cup or HSBC series. And you forget sometimes that you have skill. I’m excited for them to go out there and play freely and have fun – whatever the result might be.”

Chou and fellow coac
hes are also hoping for a good reception. The staff acknowledges the rest of the NCR field isn’t necessarily thrilled that Life has joined the ranks.

“We have been through this before – even when we were a new program and before we broke off and joined the DI Elite – where we weren’t well received,” Chou said. “I think it’s normal when varsity programs have to play clubs.

“We want to protect them as much as we can, and that’s why we’ve been so diligent about these numbers,” the coach closed. “They’re literally our second side, but they will be skilled because they train everyday against All-Americans and internationals. The big thing is they love the sport, they love rugby, and you’d hope that no one would punish them for that.”

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