Wayne State College (WSC) raised its 10th National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) trophy after winning the national 7s championship in Cheswick, Pa., last weekend. The Wildcats are now the reigning 7s and 15s champions for two consecutive years.
Every title run, every team has a story, and when the spring 7s season approached, head coach Darrin Barner didn’t pin his squad as the favorite for a national title. The fall 15s squad had been thin in the backs and only nine players carried over to the spring. The Wildcats recruited, training focused on crisp execution of the fundamentals, and team leaders reiterated high standards for play.
“They were ungodly dedicated – 6 a.m. conditioning practices, which is nuts,” Barner shivered. “They knew in 7s that that’s what it would take. Once you get to the top-eight teams [at nationals], all the teams are the same and anyone can win. The really went above and beyond of what I asked of them.”
WSC had its first run-out in mid-February, during the Iowa Hawkeyes indoor 7s tournament. There, the Wildcats beat Notre Dame, “which of course is nice for a tiny school like us,” Barner said. “That’s when I knew we had something special here.”
The team went undefeated at South Dakota State’s indoor tournament, and then qualified for nationals in Sioux City, where it played Simpson for the automatic berth to NSCRO 7s nationals. The Wildcats got a nice boost of confidence when it competed at Northern Colorado’s tournament and faced Air Force.
“The girls were forewarned who they were playing and how good they were,” Barner said of the 15s fall champion and Open 7s national champion. “That was our stepping stone to measure how good we were. We played extremely well and came out with the win. It was monumental.”
Unfortunately the team lost its fastest player, Lauren Nelson, against Air Force, but Barner was cautiously optimistic about nationals.
“I knew we had a good lineup but we were young. Five freshmen started in the final, and the others were a sophomore and junior – no seniors,” the coach said. “My prediction was that we’d be good enough to get to the quarterfinals.”
Once in Pennsylvania, Barner cut the pressure with a surprise trip to one of the last last duckpin bowling alleys in the U.S. He then turned to co-captains Brook Hoesing and Anna Fleecs to right the squad.
“I call her ‘Magic Johnson,’” Barner said of backs captain Hoesing. “She’s smart and also a strong enough runner to always require a double-team, which leaves someone open in the game of 7s. Our outside backs can score points when she’s playing flyhalf.
Hoesing scores tries but she’s a set-up player who ranks high in the assist column.
“Anna is very tall and has long arms so she’s deadly with stiff-arms,” Barner said of the forwards captain. “She leads well on the field, puts herself in position to make long runs and key offloads to keep the ball moving down field.”
Wayne State beat Findlay 26-12, Swarthmore 22-0 and Colgate 26-12 in pool play, and then shut out York 29-0 in Sunday’s Cup quarterfinal.
“We were a bit spooked having to play Simpson in the semifinals because they were playing phenomenal ball on Saturday,” Barner said. “We beat them by 40 points a few weeks earlier [at qualifiers] but they were night-and-day different at nationals. We had never loss to them in three years but they were playing the best rugby we’d ever seen them play.”
The Wildcats triumphed 21-5 and readied for the final against Rochester. WSC went up 10-0 as the first half wound to an end. The team had a penalty play on Rochester’s 20 meter and looked to put in one more try, but instead lost possession and an 80-meter try.
“Instead of going into the half up 17-0, it was 10-7. It was an ‘oh shit’ moment,” Barner said. “At halftime, it was the realization that if that happened again, then we would not win the national championship.”
Wayne State rallied around its defense – a point of pride – to produce an opportunity to score first in the second half.
“We love when we don’t have the ball. We make things happen,” Barner said.
The Wildcats scored three unanswered tries for the 31-7 win and national title. Freshman crossover Kennedy Jones was named MVP.
“She’s got a low center of gravity, shifty and has a deceptive speed for her size,” Barner praised.
Two minutes after the final whistle, Dennis Danielson, the Wildcats’ 15s scrum and defense coach, rang. Danielson coaches the Austria Raiders football team and had the team watch the game. Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts also phoned and congratulated the team on its 10th national title.
“Name another state where that would happen,” Barner beamed. “We have a large fan base of people who are up on the news of Wayne State rugby.”