Junior flyhalf Jessica Peterson (tackler) drives the East Carolina backline.
The first year playing in a higher division is tough. Shippensburg women spent a year in East Penn's DI before happily returning to DII in 2010; former DII women's champ UC Santa Cruz won one game in Northern California during its inaugural year in the big leagues. But imagine making the transition without a coach. That scenario is a reality for the East Carolina women, whose simple outlook of "play hard and see what happens" has seen them to an Iris Conference championship and berth to South championships this weekend.
ECU has spent the last couple of years decimating its local DII teams, and the South administration has been encouraging a promotion ever since.
"We thought we had to move up DI," ECU president Katie Erb said. "We committed [to DI] after we realized that we actually had a choice, but DI is where we belong anyway. We were killing teams in DII, and all of the teams we like to play are in DI."
If it sounds like East Carolina was less than eager about the promotion, it's because they were. "All of the new girls don't know why we're in DI as opposed to DII," Erb said. "Our team just likes to play rugby, so it didn't make a difference which division we played in."
But the team couldn't afford any ambivalence, since its two coaches couldn't commit to the 2010-11 season. With the threat of a disasterous season ahead, captains Jessica Peterson, a flyhalf who grew up playing in Tanzania, and hooker Shannon Kreider stepped in as player coaches.
"It's really stressful," the sophomore president said. "They have to come up with practices everyday, decide who plays - everything. We've always played a very basic game, nothing fancy, because we've never had a super solid coach."
East Carolina sized up the competition at Rucktoberfest, a well attended tournament that drew the likes of South and Mid-Atlantic DI teams. ECU licked its wounds as it watched an intense final between nationally ranked North Carolina and Virginia. The divide between it and the established DI teams became evident, but that's when ECU's drive to close the gap kicked in.
Two weeks later, ECU traveled to North Carolina for a friendly and upset the reigning South champion 21-7. "We were so surprised," Erb remembered. "We've been a little intimidated by them in the past, and we haven't beat them - on their home field, no less - in a long time. They've been number one in North Carolina for a long time, and they're a big rival of ours."
"I know their fullback [USA 7s Eagle Katie Lorenz] can't play, but that's only one player," Erb responded to claims of a weakened UNC squad. "We played really well, and we know it was an upset. They're very competitive and there's always a good chance that they're good to beat us, so we're very proud of ourselves."
East Carolina coasted on that high throughout the winter and hit the ground running during January's matrix season. ECU beat Appalachian State, a team that had beaten East Carolina at Rucktoberfest, 80-0 in its league opener. The team followed with a 60-0 win over South Carolina, and then the 26-6 league-winner against UNC.
"When we beat App State, we realized how far we had come since the fall," Erb said. "When we beat North Carolina for the second time in the spring, that not only solidified us going to regionals, but it made us realize that we could win it."
ECU heads into this weekend's South championship against Central Florida, a squad that East Carolina is not taking lightly. Erb considers her team's strengths to be in the backs, in large part to Peterson's expert direction, and they'll have their work cut out for them in the pack.
Should ECU win its semifinal against UCF this Saturday, it's very likely that another grudge match against UNC would ensue. "It's hard being number one, because you have a target on your back," Erb said. "Even though we've beaten them twice and can beat them again, we can't take them lightly. We both have our challenges: We have to have the mental attitude to play our best, and UNC has to have the confidence to come out and challenge us."
Today, the second-year rugby player speaks like a playoff-hardened veteran, a far cry from where the president, who just wanted to play for the fun of it, began months before.
"At the beginning of the fall, if you told us we'd be here, no one would have believed it," Erb said. "Now, we'd be disappointed if we don't make it to nationals. Everyone's on their game, and nationals is a realistic goal now."
Getting to nationals is an attainable goal, but the team knows that another learning experience awaits them once on the national stage. "I'd say that the ultimate goal is to win nationals, but that's probably not realistic," Erb said. "We've been stuck at Elite 8 at DII nationals and it would be great to get pass that stage. If we get to nationals, we're just going to play hard and enjoy it."
Sound familiar? Should East Carolina win Souths, then they'll head to Blaine, Minn., as the #11 seed and face #6 UC San Diego. Then ECU would have to beat the winner of the Army vs New Mexico game in order to achieve its goal of surpassing the quarterfinals. Again, unlikely.
But regardless of what happens from this point forward, ECU is already a success - and not just for their record, but the fact that they did it all on their own. They won't be able to enter another season with nebulous goals, because they've already etched a history that's begging to be outdone.