For the next two weeks, we’ll be announcing our year-end awards. Since rugby seasons straddle the New Year, the term “year” encapsulates the fall 2015 and spring 2016 seasons. There are two exceptions: colleges and national teams. First, there are distinct fall- and spring-based college competitions that culminate in their respective seasons and warrant their own awards. Second, with the exception of one 7s series event, national team performances can be assessed during the calendar year, so those awards will feature in December. In short, the awards named during the next two weeks include:
High School: Year-end awards (fall 2015 – spring 2016)
College: Spring awards (spring 2016)
Club: Year-end 15s awards (fall 2015 – spring 2016)
In December 2016, the following awards will be released:
College: Fall awards (fall 2016)
National Teams: 2016
Additionally, an August edition will cover summer 7s activity.
COLLEGE OF SPRING ’16: LIFE UNIVERSITY
After two years of competing as an official (i.e., playoffs-eligible) program, Life University has celebrated its most successful season to date and earned Best College Team of Spring 2016.
“It takes a while to establish a program. You can’t do it overnight,” Life University coach Ros Chou said. “[Athletic director] Dan [Payne] has told me that by the third recruiting class, I’ll have the program where I want it and be more of a contender.
“The first year, we had 21 players and you don’t have that depth yet,” the coach added. “This year, we had 29 and now you have the numbers for scrimmages. It made a huge difference, quickly.”
And the results followed. Life was cruising through double-header weekends, taking down DI senior club Raleigh, and also winning the Atlanta Festival 7s. That confidence funneled into the first-ever DI Elite championship, a new competition for eight of the nation’s best DI teams.
The DI Elite divided into eastern and western pools, and opening weekend included back-to-back quarterfinal and semifinal matches. But a few days prior to kickoff, Indiana University withdrew, whittling the eastern pool down to three teams and affording top-seeded Penn State a bye into the semifinals.
Life University defeated Lindenwood University 35-15 in the Saturday quarterfinal and had the weighty task of taking on a fresh Penn State the following day. The Running Eagles took the game’s first lead three minutes in and truly stood up to the eventual DI Elite champion. The game ended in Penn State’s favor, 13-7, but Life performed admirably in what seemed like an impossible scenario.
Head coach Ros Chou gushed with praise for her players.
“More than anything, the women are really buying into the culture. It shows in their work ethic but also in all of the off-the-field stuff: Are they getting the right amount of sleep? Are they taking [strength and conditioning] seriously? Are they doing well in the classroom,” Chou posed. “It makes my job easy because they’re enforcing the culture and bringing in the new players. You can see how well suited they are and that they play for each other.”
The DI Elite marked the end of spring 15s but only the beginning of achievements to come. Life added USA Rugby’s College 7s National Championship to its schedule and was simply happy to compete in the first DI competition. The Marietta, Ga., team posted intimidating numbers despite the slick conditions and met familiar opponent Lindenwood in the final. Life took its second 7s title with a 10-0 win over the Lions.
On the bus ride back from Cary, N.C., the team took a stretching break to ensure its recovery was on track for the culminating event of the season: The USA Sevens CRC, which occurred five days later. The event is well publicized and supported by the university and its fans, and a good performance in Chester, Pa., carries weight.
After Life outscored Michigan, Temple and Notre Dame 121-7 in pool play, the team attended a players reception and then the Life University kickoff party. The Running Eagles returned to the pitch for a one-game Saturday that ended in a 24-0 quarterfinal victory over Navy. The team then traveled to an off-site dinner at a player’s home.
“You might be a little worried about recovery – playing three games, going to two events, staying on your feet a little longer – but the team feeds on all of this support,” Chou explained. “It’s incredible how well supported this team is. That’s what being part of this program means – you matter.”
Assistant 7s coach Jake McFadden was crucial in keeping the team focused. Having competed in four CRCs as a player, McFadden knew how to maneuver through the many distractions of a big event and helped transition the team as a group in and around the familiar stadium. That allowed the team to concentrate its energies into the Sunday final against – you guessed it – Lindenwood.
Captain Nicole Strasko ushered her team onto the pitch, waving her arms and vivifying the bright green fan base. Life needed every bit of support in the title match, as the finalists traded scores.
“We know that they’re going to push us to our limits,” Chou said of Lindenwood. “We didn’t have that game locked up until a few seconds left on the clock. For my team, those are the games they live for – the most challenging as possible.”
Megan Rom has been the revelation this spring. The 15s tighthead prop is a hard ballcarrier who can pull away for long-range tries in 7s. Christina Swift, the final’s first try-scorer, came through with some clutch plays on either side of the ball, and Kim Semiglia was the ultimate set-up women, putting away teammates like Strasko for tries. And watch for Kaitlyn Broughton this summer, who has caught the eye of Women’s Collegiate All American 7s coach Brandon Sparks.
The result was a 19-10 win, capping a 28-1 (between 7s and 15s matches) spring season.
“The team’s talked about it quite a few times,” Chou reflected on the team from a year ago. “One player said, ‘I don’t even want to see the film from last year because we didn’t know how to play 7s at all.’ We’ve made remarkable improvements in skill in a year, specifically in 7s.”
Life is only losing four players next season, and Chou is excited about the rookie class, which will number around 13, coming in. If Payne’s prediction holds true, then year three will see an even bigger, better Running Eagles program contending for more titles.