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UCF Reinforced & Reassured

  • 26 Feb 2019

Senior leader Jennifer Fasano / Photo: Meredith Nelson, Mean Photography

University of Central Florida head coach Raoul Besse expected the 2018-19 season to be a rebuilding one – and it is. The team is very young this year. But the quality of the recruits is ever-improving, and now that the team’s in the second half of its season, Besse’s skepticism has now morphed into optimism.

“When we started this year, I wasn’t sure we should go to the post-season. Thought maybe we’d go to tournaments and tour instead,” said Besse, who’s been head coach since 2002. “You can’t graduate 26 players in two years and expect to do well.”

But the team did an excellent job recruiting and continues to do so throughout the season. Besse indicated that every week there’s a new player coming out to practice to try out the game.

“As you grow these teams, athletes start recruiting athletes,” Besse described UCF’s evolution over the years. “They start recruiting more people like themselves instead of people who want to come out and just have fun. That’s where they are now. The recruits are pretty good athletes, which allows you to teach the game way faster instead having people who don’t know how to catch a ball.”

In addition to educating the newcomers, the team also had to adjust to vacancies left by influencers like Cortney Kuehl, Julia Phillips, Sara Karuli and more. Besse has turned to loose forward Christina Norman, who serves as captain; Donneisha Smith, who is now a big threat at inside center; and halfback Jennifer Fasano as senior leaders.

“We’re not as big as we’ve been in the past – what we’re known for,” Besse chuckled. “But I can tell you we’re more mobile. … We run better support lines, too, because we’re not counting on 1, 2, 3 people to carry the load. We depended on certain players too much but we can disperse the load better now.”

Young players like center Madeleine Ross (who took an ankle injury last weekend but might be back before playoffs), center/wing Julia Mortellaro, and scrumhalf Gabby Pennino have all stepped up. They also played in last year’s spring championship, so they have that experience from which to grow. Wing Maddie Potter is a first-year senior so she won’t return next year but is making a big impact this spring.

In the forwards, watch for rising players like locks Laurell Cuza and Eva Esperanza, and front rows Savannah Zafiris and Lil’China La’Teal Davis. They inject good size and speed to the pitch.

All of these parts started coming together in the fall, as UCF went out of state to test itself in advance of the spring matrix season. Florida combined its DI and DII teams into one conference this year, but it hasn’t really been an improvement. Florida International adopted a 7s model and thus their 15s game was a forfeit. Miami University also dropped out.

“It’s really just us and Eckerd trying to qualify,” Besse said of Florida teams looking toward DI and DII regional playoffs, “and everyone else is just kinda playing.”

That just means more travel for UCF, which finished second to Life University last weekend at the New Orleans Mardi Gras tournament. In two weeks the team will travel to the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day tournament in hopes of more and varied competition.

“They showed a lot of character,” Besse reviewed the team’s performance against Life. “It was 22-5 with no time left. We made a stupid mistake at the end and it resulted in a try. But they played really well. I don’t think Life was expecting it because I told them how young we were.

“I think they are confident but [the game against Life] makes them feel more confident,” the coach added. “You’re really only playing them for a half technically, and I know they’re young and missing players. But it really helps us judge where we’re at. They didn’t back down, because Life can be really physical. You get over that physicality and you can hang out there.”

The match was also very valuable to the six players who had never played rugby before September. That’s an experience from which they can build.

Looking ahead, it’s likely that UCF will be joined by three Mason-Dixon teams for the eastern portion of the spring regional championships. The leaders there are Queens University of Charlotte, UVA and Virginia Tech. UCF is well familiar with the Virginia programs, but the Royals are an unknown, only being two years old. But Besse is happy for the challenge, because better competition in the eastern portion of the country only helps UCF.

Click here to view the hybrid Florida conference’s results and standings.

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