Salisbury University has been on a mission since last year’s USA Rugby DII College Spring Championship final four, but head coach Brock Brooks explained that that driven mentality isn’t new. That’s how he was coached when a student at Salisbury, and how he coaches the team today. During Brooks’ five years as head coach, Salisbury has advanced to four regional championships.
“We play to win and we expect to win,” Brooks summarized it neatly.
Salisbury repeated as the Capital conference champion and then received a bye through the spring Round of 16 along with three other teams. Thus the Maryland team needed one win – against University of Georgia – to return to the spring final four. The Bulldogs had finished second in the South Independent Rugby Conference, dropping an 11-point final to reigning champion Tulane University.
“There were playoff jitters. Lots of nerves. We weren’t playing to our fullest,” Brooks reflected on the first 40 minutes against UGA. “We took them lightly and then played down to our opponent, and you can’t do both of those things and expect to do well.”
The teams went into the break tied at 17, as flyhalf Elisa Rivera, wing Marla McNeil and inside center Kirby Given dotted down for Salisbury, and outside center Katelyn Mason, flanker Marlyse Sifre and scrumhalf Jennifer Barto scored for UGA. For Salisbury, that break was used to take a breath, regroup and mentally check-in.
“Sometimes when you’re playing you can lose the concept of what’s happening around you and just focus on yourself,” Brooks explained how the team’s mindset translated onto the pitch. “The technical shortfalls we were experiencing came from not being there in the moment.”
The coach trusted the team to right itself and pointed to the upperclassmen for directing traffic, especially flyhalf Rivera.
“She really gets the best out of the players,” Brooks praised. “She was leading up and really helped us out.”
Salisbury took a yellow card early in the second half and both teams scored during that 10-minute period, 24-22 to Salisbury.
“Defense is where we pride ourselves, so we had a defensive stop and poached the ball,” Brooks recalled a turning point. “That led to a kick-and-chase, and that’s when I knew our heads were in the game.”
The team added to No. 8 Haley Gee’s try with scores from Given, fullback Haley Sheldon (2) and outside center Sydney Hobbs (2). Salisbury won 55-27.
“It shell-shocked them a little bit and made them strategize more and use their rugby IQ, instead of just running up and down the field,” Brooks pointed to the positives of game that requires a second-half surge.
“It helps my confidence, as a coach,” he continued. “I always have full trust in the players, but to see them make better decisions on the fly, it shows how mature they are as a team.”
When that final whistle sounded and Salisbury officially booked its return trip to the spring final four, there was little celebration from the team. Rather, the squad regarded the win as another step toward the ultimate prize.
Instead, the team watched Eckerd College beat Coastal Carolina 53-12, and banked some intel on its spring semifinal opponent. Brooks noted a disciplined, knowledgeable team that liked to play out in the backs.
“Our goal is to win a title – the spring championship,” Brooks said. “We have unfinished business and something to prove.”