It’s wasn’t too long ago that Kutztown was relegated from Eastern Penn’s women’s college DII. The team bottomed out in fall 2010, going almost two seasons without a coach after a series of non-committal ones. But the team turned it around, secured a Kutztown alum as coach, regrouped in EPRU’s DIII, and spent the last three years working toward a program benchmark: the American Collegiate Rugby Association (ACRA) championships.
Kutztown was in bad shape when Sean Cobb came onto the scene in spring 2011. Having played for KU from 1997-2002, then served as assistant coach from 2005-2010, Cobb was accustomed to the standard of the men’s team.
“There was a lot of athletic talent, but no real understanding of the game or organization as a club,” Cobb recalled his first impressions of the women's team. “That first semester was a little rough. There was a little distrust with me considering how many coaches they’d gone through, and I had never coached women before. There was a lot of feel back and forth, a learning curve for both of us, but we had a much better feeling for each other after that.”
Once Cobb earned the team’s trust, he started to shift the team’s social nature to a more competitive one. That summer, Cobb and the newly elected captains constructed a 46-page manual that outlined the expectations of every player, and detailed the consequences of failing to meet them. He emphasized practice attendance, added two extra sessions per week, enlisted a strength and conditioning coach, and the team started to see results. Kutztown went undefeated in the regular season, eventually losing to Millersville in the playoffs, but it was that performance that saw the team fully buy-in to Cobb’s more disciplined, committed brand of club.
It might have been a hard sell to get back into the EPRU’s DII, but 2012 saw the formation of college conferences. Cobb was in on the ground floor as the Mid-Atlantic Rugby Conference (MARC) gelled, and this was the opportunity to get Kutztown back into DII.
“It took some convincing,” Cobb said of that transition period with the team. “I wanted to make the move to DII, because we’ve always had the athletes to be competitive and now was our opportunity. The girls were nervous because they had played Lock Haven [a MARC powerhouse] the season prior and took a beating. It was a heated discussion.”
Cobb’s faith wasn’t misplaced, and Kutztown has advanced to the last two MARC championships. KU faced Lock Haven in 2012 and lost 8-7. This year, KU took on Shippensburg, and lost 43-41.
“Back-to-back championship losses are tough to deal with,” Cobb said.
Fortunately for Kutztown, MARC received two spots in ACRA’s Round of 32. In fact, since the conference championship overlapped with ACRA’s first round of playoffs, both Shippensburg and Kutztown received byes directly to the Sweet 16s.
“The girls were looking to me during the week leading up to Stonehill College, asking what to expect from a New England team,” Cobb said of Kutztown’s Round of 16 opponent. “We don’t necessarily play a fast, up-tempo game; we’re grinders. We were concerned that other teams would be faster, so we had the men’s team play touch 7s with us, so the girls got used to chasing faster opponents.”
On the opening kickoff, Stonehill flanker Sarah Buonopane returned the receipt for a 70-meter try. By 18 minutes in, Stonehill led 15-5.
“There was this look of, ‘What did we get ourselves into,’” Cobb remembered the players' initial reaction. “The captains, Faith Hughes and Leala Godinet, and our president, No. 8 Victoria Peitzman, pulled the girls back together, saying, ‘They’re not better than us. We worked hard to get here.’ And that turned the game on its head. Twenty minutes in, the game hadn’t gotten away from us yet.”
KU went onto score five tries during the remaining 20 minutes of the half and ended the game with a 53-20 victory.
It rained overnight, so when Kutztown and Bowdoin faced each other in the quarterfinals, the field was slick but not muddy.
“It did just enough to slow the game down; for my girls, there’s no other way to play,” Cobb said of the tight game that evolved. “Bowdoin didn’t have size, but they had muscle mass. They pushed us around in the set pieces a bit and in the forward pack. They seemed to want to bang with us in the forwards then get the ball to their 10 and let her make decisions. We did well to get in her face and pressure, forcing some errant kicks. We did not play the fanciest of rugby; in fact I’d call it a rucking practice.”
Defense ending up producing the 15-5 win. The victory was a sheer triumph but produced an unfortunate result: Flyhalf Mary Cate Matta left the game 20 minutes in with a torn ACL.
“She’s been a starter for us since she joined, except for her first game, and she’s a huge part of our game,” Cobb said. “Her loss is a detriment to our team. She gives us kicking and penalty options that no one else can give, and we have to adjust our system now.”
That extra pressure will on the shoulders of players like scrumhalf Sharyn Beodeker, whom Cobb compares to a female Mike Petri.
“Our defense wouldn’t be nearly as good without her,” Cobb said. “She’s always coordinating players into the right spots. And she’s an extension of me on offense; we have similar rugby brains. We started together and have a great connection. When I want to run a system, she knows it before I do. Twenty minutes into a game, she knows where to attack and where not, who to take on and not.”
Keep an eye on lock Faith Hughes, as well. She was invited to an U20 women’s camp during her first year of rugby and has grown immensely.
“Faith is one of the most powerful women I’ve ever met,” Cobb said of the forwards captain. “She has the ability to change the game on one run. She’s really big, really strong, and unbelievably fast for her size, and physical in contact. She knows when to pick and choose; she’s super competitive and has a lot of gas in the tank.”
Godinet is the backs captain and only rejoined the team mid-season after an ACL tear. She’s actually playing flanker. She’s a former javelin and high jump scholarship athlete, is smart and physical in attack, and brings a great stiff-arm into action.
Kutztown will undoubtedly play its toughest competitor to date, Winona State, in the ACRA semifinals Saturday.
“I feel like we’re playing a mirror image of ourselves, except Winona’s scorelines are bigger,” Cobb said. “But as a team that is used to scoring a lot of points, they’re not used to being on the back foot, and could lose it if we put on the pressure. Our defense is about organizing at the right place and right time, and living to play another day. I have all the confidence in the girls and in Sharyn to put people in the right situations. This isn’t going to be another game where we can have a defensive lapse and make it up later.”
Kutztown and Winona will meet at 9 a.m. EST on Saturday, Dec. 7. The games will be live broadcast on RugbyMag.com’s YouTube channel. Stay tuned for the exact weblink.