If Norwich is the favorite in DI, then Winona State is the frontrunner in American Collegiate Rugby Association’s DII championship. The Black Katts return to the Final Four for the third straight year (the previous two at USA Rugby’s national tournament), so the team knows what it takes to get to the final.
“We’re all hoping that the third time is lucky,” Winona State coach Roger Riley said. “I wouldn’t say there’s confidence, but there’s a certain amount of determination. But because the teams in the Final Four are so far away, it’s hard to compare, and the players are still nervous. There’s a void of knowledge, but we’re gunning for it.”
Winona may not know much about its competition, but its players know about tournaments of this caliber, and that experience is irreplaceable.
“We’re very lucky,” Riley said. “Six of the eight players in our forward pack played at the last two national tournaments. They were freshmen in 2012; now they’re juniors. The backline is kind of a similar mix. We lost our All American flyhalf [Ashley Nelson] to graduation, but we picked up a great sophomore, Katie Deiss from Catholic Memorial. We lost some things with Nelson gone, but we’ve gained a new aspect that has changed our attacking plan.”
Winona is in a good place now, but it took some time for the team to build a head of steam. The team encountered little resistance en route to its Northern Lights conference title.
“We might have posted big scores, but it took us about four games to get going,” Riley said. “How do you motivate your team when you know you’re going to win by 80 or 90 points? We had to set individual and team goals in terms of scoring – score 54 points in the first half – or lineouts stolen. We turned it on in the Round of 32, and everything’s gelled nicely.”
Winona beat UW La Crosse handily, 76-0, in the Round of 32, then encountered their best game of the season against Nebraska (46-15 win) the following weekend.
“Nebraska surprised us,” Riley said. “By everything we’d been told, we expected an easy game. But apparently halfway through the semester, the Nebraska men’s coach, a Fijian, joined the women’s team, and they were big, powerful, straight-forward runners.
“In the first half, we got up by 30 points against a strong wind,” Riley continued. “The ladies might have thought, ‘Here we go again,’ but Nebraska really turned it up in the second half. We scored two tries to their two tries. Our team defense was left wanting. We did some quick overnight work to shore up our defense and our tackling, and everything’s gone swimmingly since then.”
Winona handled Colorado Mesa easily the next day in the quarterfinals, 71-0, but that experience against Nebraska lingered with the team. More work on defense was needed before being Final Four ready, so Riley employed the help of the men’s team.
“They’ve been coming out to practice, so the girls can tackle big, strong people running straight ahead,” Riley said. “We go full contact, but the boys are going about 75%. They’re increasing the speed of the game for us, coming up quickly on defense.”
This focus will come in handy when Winona sees Kutztown in the semifinals Saturday. The Pennsylvania side is a self-confessed “grinder” of a team that will look to wear down the Black Katts. The Minnesota side is not short on size; props Kathryn Zahn and Rachel Hunter are 5’11 and 5’10, respectively. But like Zahn, whom Riley called a wing prop for her pack-leading speed, these big girls can move. Lock Courtney Kavajecz is a prime example. And keep an eye out for flanker Holly Vassar; she’s the veteran breakaway and leader around the field.
There’s some size in the centers, too, between Holly Edelburg and Caitlin Courtney. One might remember the latter from last year’s national semifinals, scoring four tries against Quinnipiac. Courtney has a great sense of balance and good mobility for her size. The wing speed has increased dramatically this year, as well, thanks to two sophomores who have worked their way into the starting line: Nicole Linberg and Lindsey Bucki.
Winona will face Kutztown at 9 a.m. EST on Saturday in Auburndale, Fla. The game will be livestreamed via RugbyMag.com, viewable here: http://www.rugbymag.com/news/multimedia/full-game-video/10047-acra-live-webstream-winona-v-kutztown.html