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Vassar’s Back on the Title Hunt

  • 30 Nov 2021

Emily Howell, one of three Vassar captains / Photo:

Vassar College has traveled to seven of the previous eight DII fall championship weekends, so the program has institutional knowledge of what the post-season entails. But this year’s team, like many teams recouping after Covid, has but a handful of players with first-hand experience in these season-culminating games. But that well will refill this Saturday, as the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., team travels to Matthews, N.C., for the American Collegiate Rugby Association (ACRA) DII Championship against Temple University.

RELATED: Combined college playoff brackets

Vassar’s conference season looked like years past – same teams, similar results, all of which led to the Tri-State championship title.

“It was the same in terms of how it ended up, but it felt so differently because we had so many people who didn’t have much experience in actual games before,” Vassar No. 8 and co-captain Emily Howell said of the season. “It kind of just left like we were constantly flying by the seat of our pants.”

But Howell and fellow senior captains Kira Nolan and Vivika Sheppard noted a similar learning curve across the field, a hesitancy early on and a build-up of physicality as the fall progressed.

Vassar fullback and co-captain Vivika Sheppard / Photo:

“Yes and no,” Howell said of managing a new stress. “We’re really lucky because [Vassar head coach Tony Brown] is such a good coach. He did a really good job of getting everyone up to where they needed to be to play rugby safely and well. But a lot of the morale problems were new.”

Time healed all and before long those relationships reinforced off field and that translated to more united play on the field. Vassar then received the jolt it needed in mid-October, when Bowdoin College traveled to Poughkeepsie for the teams’ annual friendly.

“We play them every year and it helps because they’re the hardest team we go against in our regular season – before we get Coast Guard or anything like that,” Howell said. “And we never really lost it. So that was kind of the kick in the pants that everyone needed to step it up a bit.”

RELATED: Bowdoin Wins DIII NIRA National Championship

“I was really surprised by everyone’s intensity, that it was continually increasing,” Sheppard said of the 26-17 loss. “It’s still really easy to feel defeated, especially if historically you’re the winning team. Everyone was shocked but not shocked at the same time. Everyone knew things had to change.”

Vassar co-captain Kira Nolan / Photo:

The Bowdoin match provided great insight into work-ons as well as team strengths, and Vassar rolled those lessons into the Tri-State playoffs. The Brewers beat Rutgers, RPI and then Fairfield by a combined 185-12 for the conference title.

“Coming up fast on defense,” Sheppard noted major changes on the field. “There’s always hesitation because you’re always thinking, ‘O.K., where are these people going,’ but it occurred to us that you need to rush for a reason. … It’s going up quick and being aggressive when you need to be aggressive, and thinking about it methodically but not putting too much thought into it that you’re second-guessing yourself.”

“The Bowdoin game also showed us that multiple people can do the same things,” Howell said of developing leadership. “Viv and I got injured in that [Bowdoin] game – not super seriously – so other people had to step into roles that we usually fill. They did a really good job.”

Photo: JJ Fagan

The conference title meant an automatic berth to the ACRA quarterfinals, which brought together teams from four Northeast/Mid-Atlantic leagues and the Rocky Mountain conference. On Nov. 20-21, the field assembled at Vassar for the double-header weekend, and the home team faced Rugby Northeast’s Colby College on day one.

RELATED: ACRA Names its Semifinalists

The Brewers put in a solid 53-5 win against the Maine team and then readied for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy on Sunday. The Bears added the Wild Card round to its path to the post-season, necessitated after a three-point loss to Vermont in the New England Wide title match. The New London, Conn., team beat Kutztown 57-17 on Nov. 13 and then edged Colorado School of Mines 20-19 in the Nov. 20 quarterfinals.

The last time Vassar and Coast Guard played each other, it was for 3rd place in USA Rugby’s 2019 DII Fall College Championship. The Bears won that 2019 match 39-27 and were keen to replicate the victory. Before the end of the first quarter, Coast Guard led 15-0.

Photo: JJ Fagan

“It’s very difficult to play being three tries down within the first 15 minutes, and I give everyone a lot of credit for really deciding that, yes, we can do this. We can rally and get this done,” Howell said. “We stuck to what we’re good at – which is rucking – and got the ball back and that made a really big difference. That game could have gone very differently if people let it get to them mentally.”

“It was tiny things, like holding the ball tighter to make sure no one was going to steal it from you,” Sheppard said. “They were things we just had to learn, because so many teams do so many things differently. Some teams try to jackal so much and other teams it’s not on their radar. So I think we had to adjust but also play our game.”

Vassar answered through two Howell tries and an MC Cicenia conversion for a 15-12 halftime scoreline. Coach Brown amped up the team during the break, and then it was back to work.

“After the half, it was like a switch,” Sheppard said. “I think Tony was crying because he was so surprised by the change in energy on the field. It was crazy.”

Sophia Florida / Photo:

Howell scored another two tries and Cicenia knocked over the extras.

“I scored the fourth try that put us in safer range from Coast Guard,” Howell said of the 24-15 score line, a turning point. “They would have had to score twice to get us, so it was, ‘We have a little bit of wiggle room. We can do this.’ We were not comfortable when we were tied with them, because they are so, so fast and could just run straight around us if they happen to get the ball. But once we had a little wiggle room, I felt a lot better.”

The Academy added one more try, while Sophia Florida and Julia Busby dotted down one apiece for a 36-20 ending. Sheppard – who plays fullback and has scored 12 tries this fall – called out Florida for flourishing in dire situations.

“She’s a monster, in a good way,” Sheppard said.

Sophia Lynch / Photo:

“The biggest shoutout in my mind is [Sophia] Lynch,” said Howell, who leads Vassar with 34 tries this fall. “She a freshman, she’s a wing, and she’s done a really outstanding job of adapting under these high-pressure situations. She doesn’t really know what’s going on – obviously, she does now but in the beginning of the season, everything was a bit of mystery to her, and still it was, ‘Yeah, O.K., I’ll run. Gimme the ball.’”

“I was watching from the sideline,” the injured Nolan said. “More than any individual, I could see the team coming together as a collective in that game. After scoring a try, no one was walking back [to the 50]. Everyone was celebrating and hugging on the try line. That was cool to watch from an outsider’s perspective. As a collective, the team put its mind to the task that needed to be accomplished, and they did it.”

Vassar also showed more balance in the comeback win against Coast Guard.

“We had a more experienced back line in the beginning of the season and a very, very inexperienced pack, which is not the usual for us,” Howell said. “The development of the pack has been really fun to watch through the season and seeing that hesitancy turn into speed and consistency and aggression in the rucks – all of that has really increased. We’re almost back to where we were my freshmen and sophomore years, when the pack was solid.”

Howell’s scored 34 tries this fall / Photo:

“I do want to give a quick shoutout to one of our seniors, who unfortunately had a torn ACL at the beginning of the year,” Nolan added. “Mia Walsh is one of our few players who played rugby before she came here and she’s such a leader on the team. Even though we’re a collective and we’re not a team of stars, she would have been such a star.”

While Vassar was booking its trip to the ACRA final, Temple University was on the other side of the bracket doing the same. The Mid-Atlantic champs beat Colorado Mesa University 43-10 in the quarterfinals and then came from behind to beat Vermont 19-17 in the semifinals.

RELATED: Temple Advances to ACRA Championship

Traditionally, the final stage of the DII fall championship season is a double-header weekend, but ACRA is holding a stand-alone final on Dec. 4 in Matthews, N.C. The CRAA DI Fall Championship between Navy and Davenport will also occur at 6 p.m. Saturday and is part of a full slate of collegiate games this weekend.

“It feels really great that it’s just one game,” said Howell, who is one of five current players from the 2019 team that placed fourth overall. “It’s usually final four and you’re like, ‘Oh, god, I have to play two games after a 16-hour bus ride and then directly afterward get back on a bus for 16 hours, and then go do finals.”

Nolan / Photo:

“It was a shift from what we’re used to but I’m a big fan of it because it allows us to put all of our energy into the championship game,” added Nolan, also a 2019 returner. “While having two games shows the depth of teams, its nice to put our entire focus in the championship game and not worry about injuries for the day after.”

The leaders noted the team’s equal parts excitement and nerves for the impending championship, but the team will be playing for each other, a program legacy, as well as those teammates who can’t be on the pitch.

For more kickoff times and tickets to the championship weekend, click here.

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