Yana Manoa emphasizing the tackle /// Photo courtesy CWU Women’s Rugby
Last season was a whirlwind for Central Washington, as it transitioned from a DII club to a DI varsity program. The Wildcats advanced to both the DI 15s and 7s national championships, falling short to Penn State on both occasions. In its sophomore season, Central Washington harnessed that experience and funneled it into a new challenge: the DI Elite, which begins this Friday.
That first season was educational for Central Washington coach Mel Denham as well. After a 15s season that ranged from September-May, followed by the 7s championship in late May, the players suffered some burn out. This spring, the coach lined up fewer but better-quality opponents in the build-up toward the DI Elite playoffs. The Wildcats tested themselves in Canada, hosted Ric Suggitt’s Lethbridge, traveled to BYU for a 12-7 win and beat WPL’s ORSU in games that raised the team’s level and tempo of play.
“This season, we’ve played a bunch of unknowns, which is fun for us now,” Denham spoke to added benefits. “It’s good to go out there and assess your opponent, to problem-solve and adjust to what you see on the field.”
A core group of veterans is driving that evolution and also introducing higher-level exposure as All Americans and senior Eagle pool players. Nate Serevi, Jenny Johnson and Haley Schafer are all natural leaders with a deep passion for the game. Scrumhalf Ros Pena has been playing flanker and is a constant influence on and off the pitch. Carrie Vaillancourt has stepped up as captain this year, and the lock/flanker is a good, rationale voice that complements the locker room leaders.
“These players have a mental edge,” Denham said of the returners. “Last year, it was hard to match the level of pressure that [former CWU backs coach Katie] Dowty and I knew we would see in the final. Those girls who experienced it and now know the level focus that needs to happen at training, they’ve reset the standard. It’s on them to drive the rest of the team, instead of the coaches trying to motivate and push the players.”
As these leaders develop, a cast of young stars is also emerging. Meagan Curtis joined in the fall but was recovering from a broken leg and didn’t feature.
“Her learning curve has been exponential,” Denham praised. “She’s been playing center and wing and picking up the game so quickly. She’s got speed and physicality and has been a huge surprise for us.”
Samu Manoa’s cousin, Yana, has also been influential as a freshman.
“She is very physical, very focused and a natural leader,” the coach said of the hooker. “She’s working to understand our system and pattern of play, and working with teammates, but when she gets the ball, she’s always making meters and putting in big hits.”
The newcomers are bolstering an already dangerous Central Washington, which has focused on its defense this year. It’s one of several adjustments that Denham has employed and it’s become a source of pride for the players. The Wildcats will debut its refined game on the national stage this Saturday against New Mexico.
“Last year we felt prepared [for the post-season]; this year is about readiness,” Denham said. “We’ve spent a lot of time on skills, execution, making sure the small things are right. Training’s been really positive and the intensity is on the field when we need it.
“The energy has been really positive,” Denham spoke to the team’s current vibe. “It doesn’t seem too eager or too low – we’re just right. They understand they need to get through this weekend before thinking about anything else. They’re building up but we haven’t peaked yet.”
Central Washington is hosting the western portion of the DI Elite quarterfinals and will play New Mexico at 2 p.m. PDT. The game will be live-streamed here. At 4 p.m. PDT, watch Stanford vs. BYU in other semifinal. Friday’s victors will play each other Saturday for a berth to the DI Elite national championship on May 7.