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Team Ball Propels Brandywine to Playoffs

  • 07 Apr 2016
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Nick Abell inherited a knowledgeable team when he took over as Brandywine coach two years ago. The now-26-year-old wasn’t bogged down in teaching the players how to play rugby, but could focus on means to master it. As the New Zealander grew to understand the DII club landscape, he hunkered down on basics and used lessons gleaned from the competition to formulate a game plan in which Brandywine could flourish. This past fall, the Riot went 6-0 while outscoring league opponents 273-29, and after last Saturday’s win is one game away from completing an undefeated regular season.

 

“Last year, we didn’t work on game plans at all. We just focused on team skills,” Abell reflected on the beginning of his tenure. “During the first few trainings at the end of the [previous] summer, all we were doing was catching and passing. Some were annoyed or thought it beneath them, but it’s been helpful spending the year working on skills and setting a baseline for the whole team.”

 

The “whole team” aspect is central to what is making Brandywine work. During last year’s trip to the Mid-Atlantic Conference (MAC) DII Club Championship, the Pennsylvania side suffered an excruciating loss to now-DI Raleigh.

 

“The way we got beaten played a part in how we modeled our game plan this year,” Abell said. “It wasn’t fun going down to Virginia for a loss like that, but it was a good learning experience for me.

 

“A lot of the rugby in our division and America in general relies on a few individuals outperforming those less talented than them,” the coach added. “But the changes we’ve made produce far better team rugby, and teams that have beaten us with individuals in the past aren’t as effective anymore.”

 

Brandywine’s style of play relies on line speed. On defense, players aim to exert pressure by getting in the opponent’s face – not just in the backline but around the rucks and in taking tackles. On attack, it’s about acceleration into contact and making the other team do the work.

 

“And precision,” Abell added the final element. “If you’re fast but can’t tackle or can’t catch the ball, then it doesn’t work. That’s why the skill’s got to be up before we can play our style.”

 

The team has committed to the changes and experienced success, but is also a work in progress. After a three-month break, the team is re-establishing its skill level and game-long discipline. This spring, Brandywine has played two friendlies (41-28 win vs. Morris, 36-15 win vs. DI Village Lions) and a league game (46-20 win vs. DC Furies 2) that saw strong first halves followed by less intense second halves.

 

“The whole team has bought in, just not full-time,” Abell said. “They expect the opposition to roll over just because we’ve had a good first half. They’re starting to realize that it’s a decision – that things won’t just happen by themselves. You have to want it and execute it. So, I’m not particularly happy how we’re playing right now and I let them know that. We’re feeling good but not as good as we could.”

 

As Abell works on changing that mindset, he relies on the core group of players to harden dedication. President and longtime hooker Lindsay Watson is chief among them. She’s really knowledgeable in all aspects of rugby and is an ever-present source of inspiration. There’s also a nice unit in the center of the field, with flankers Kaitlin Tomecek and Tobin Chidester working hard with captain and No. 8 Marissa Curti in the loose forwards. They run off of captain Alex Orr at scrumhalf and flyhalf Whitney Hartshorne, who launches a talented backline.

 

Last Saturday against the Furies, the backline accounted for the scoring and was led by outside center Jenna Ponto’s four tries. Inside center Patricia Delamere, wing Jean-Marie Connolly, fullback Nicole Benedetti and sub Karen Hall all scored tries, while Hartshorne slotted three conversions.

 

Brandywine will play York & Lancaster this Saturday in its final league game. The next goal is the MAC championship, which will be contested May 7-8 in Wilmington, Del. The DII competition will also be joined by the DI and DIII tournaments.

 

“The leadership and I have been trying to convey that we have a unique season – regardless of the level or sport that’s being played,” Abell looked ahead. “Going undefeated and winning a championship is a unique opportunity. It would be nice if they could prioritize rugby right now, commit while still doing for the fun of it.”

 

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