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Salisbury Hungry for Competition

  • 15 Nov 2019
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Photo courtesy Salisbury Women’s Rugby Insta (@suwomensrugby)

The DII Capital conference is the only women’s collegiate competition in the country that contests its league season and playoffs in the fall, and then defers its berth to the regional post-season until the spring championship. Salisbury University is familiar with the split season and has been making steady ground in the USA Rugby DII Spring College Championships the last few years, advancing to the semifinals in 2018 and the final in 2019. Salisbury locked up its spot to the 2020 spring regional playoffs after last weekend’s Capital championship and is readying for that final step: winning a spring title.

RELATED: How are college 15s championships organized? Check out this bracket spreadsheet from 2018-19 for some insight

When Salisbury lost its 2018 spring semifinal to Claremont College, the team felt like it didn’t showcase itself properly, and that shortfall was the catalyst to a new brand of motivation going forward. The Maryland team returned in spring 2019, beat Eckerd 29-20 in the semifinals, and then faced Fresno State in the title match. A grueling, lead-changing match evolved, and the Bulldogs emerged with a 25-19 victory.

“It was a mixture of both,” Salisbury captain Elisa Rivera said of positive and negative takeaways. “Obviously we were happy to be there and redeem ourselves from the previous year, but there was a lot of frustration because we knew we could have done it, because it was the difference of one try.”

“Everyone was devastated by the loss and how we lost,” Salisbury president Annie Geitner added, “but it ignited a fire and this drive going forward: We want to win a [spring] title.”

Head coach Brock Brooks stepped down after the spring 2019 season, and former manager Josh Creighton took over, allowing for a comfortable transition. To boot, the team graduated just one senior, so the squad was starting from a good place in terms of chemistry. Geitner, who also serves as match secretary, built a robust schedule, layering in friendlies on top of its Capital matrix matches, so newcomers could integrate and grow.

“We had three forfeits, one of them being our quarterfinal match against [Old Dominion University],” Geitner pointed to fellow Capital North teams Johns Hopkins and UMBC as the other two cancelations. “We were kind of surprised especially because ODU made it into the [playoff] tournament, but the day before our match they told us they weren’t coming.”

UVA was scheduled for an Oct. 19 friendly but it, too, was canceled in close proximity to kickoff. When Salisbury arrived at the Capital semifinals on Nov. 9, it had only played one match since Oct. 5 – a 41-20 win against Towson, the team’s best competition.

“That’s what I personally think, especially if you wait until the day before to forfeit. You schedule a game and then they hear how we’re playing,” Rivera suspected that intimidation was a factor in the cancelations. “We were really looking forward to UVA because they were going to be our biggest competition but they canceled the week before. I’m not sure how to change that but it’s very disappointing that we don’t have actual games to prepare for the playoffs.”

Five of the Capital’s 15 teams forfeited at least one match this fall, but the North pool took the most hits.

To compensate for the lack of game time, Salisbury trained nearly five times per week and used those vacated Saturdays to play each other or push their conditioning with three-hour ruck-and-runs. The team kept focus by starting every training session, every 6 a.m. workout, with the mantra: We’re doing this for nationals.* (see note below)

Salisbury was amped for the Capital final four and took the title in convincing fashion. Day one was a 74-7 win against American, and the trophy match was a 79-3 win against William & Mary. Notable performances stretched across the pitch, ranging from newer players like sophomore Maddy McKinney, who picked up the game in high school and drove the game from scrumhalf; to grad student Sara Mercado, who brings bountiful experience and perspective to the pitch.

The conference title affords an automatic berth to the DII spring regional playoffs in April, but the league typically receives another two spots to the Round of 16 depending on the commitment from other spring-based leagues. Last year, three teams received byes through the Round of 16. (toggle to tab “USAR DII – Spring”)

Squad wise, Salisbury will lose two influential seniors for the spring, and that will require a consolidation of effort to fill those absences. Geitner and Rivera have faith in the squad’s ability to do so, but they also know that a competitive build-up to regionals will be instrumental to the post-season run. DI UVA and Pittsburgh, among others, are on the spring wish list, and Salisbury is hoping to add more reliable fixtures for the new year.

In the meantime, Salisbury will have to wait until March-April before the spring bracket begins to fill out. The Carolinas and Mid-America conferences have played a few matrix games (and both struggle with cancelations and forfeits as well), while Florida, West Coast, Pacific Desert, SIRC are all spring-only.

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* USA Rugby no longer names national champions in its Division I and Division II women’s college competitions but rather fall and spring champions. The fall champions will be named Dec. 7-8, and the spring champions May 2-3, but at no point will the fall and spring teams encounter each other in the pursuit of a national title. USA Rugby used to name national champions – DI started in 1991 and DII in 2000 – but a schism occurred approximately five years ago, and now there are only seasonal champs for 15s. USA Rugby does name national champions for DI Elite 15s and 7s. NSCRO (7s, 15s) and NIRA (15s) name national champions.

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