There's a range of experience present at the women's DII American Collegiate Rugby Association (ACRA) championships this weekend. Winona is on the one end, first-year team Notre Dame College on the other. Vassar falls in between, having competed in the Round of 8 two years ago (and losing to eventual champion Norwich). Those players are now juniors and seniors, and their leadership will be key this weekend, as there is a good amount of underclassmen on the field who are going in green.
Vassar didn’t begin as the strongest team in the Tri-State conference. The league season started with a big shutout loss to Marist, followed by a second defeat to Albany. But the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., team needed some time before it started playing some cohesive rugby.
“When the season started, we had 16 returning players and about 25 rookies,” Vassar coach Tony Brown said. “We’ve never had that dynamic before. Normally we have a core of vets and about 10 rookies added in. That meant that freshmen went into the starting lineup, or on the bench. Marist is a good, athletic side, and we didn’t play well. We didn’t tackle, and it doesn’t matter who you play if you don’t tackle.”
Vassar got a couple of wins against the weaker teams in the conference, then bowed to Albany, another physical side, 20-5. But once the conference launched into playoffs, Vassar got the wins when it counted. The team started with a 17-0 victory over Rutgers in the quarterfinals, and then beat the top two teams in the conference: Marist 22-5 then Stony Brook 22-17 in the final.
“The players did not go in expecting to beat Marist in the playoffs. They hadn’t lost any games, and we were playing on their field,” Brown said. “But if you work hard, put in the time, then you’re going to win some games. We’ve been focusing on what we have to do to get better.”
The squad is pretty evenly distributed between the upper and lower classmen. There are two freshmen and a sophomore in the front row. Hooker Natalie Freeman is really promising. She’s fearless and wears a smile into contact, Brown said. Mariah Ghant (who will miss Saturday’s semifinal and fly to Florida Sunday if Vassar's in the final) is another young talent, and she’s joined by sophomore Darienne Jones in the front row.
The back row has seen national playoffs before, anchored by No. 8 and vocal captain Dallas Robinson and joined by flankers Hannah Fink and Meg Slattery.
And then there’s the pivotal player, scrumhalf Margaret Kwateng. She missed last season due to an ACL injury, but her return has been felt.
“She’s a very confident but modest player,” Brown said. “She’s a good athlete, and a very intelligent player. She’s valuable.”
Her most valuable asset, however, was her decision-making and direction. She isn’t a loud voice on the field; hers is the one telling her teammates, especially the young ones, where they need to be, what rucks they should hit or channels to fill.
But a close second on the list is her scoring ability. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native has a knack for exploiting mismatches, and it’s common for her to log multi-try games. An All American as a sophomore, Kwateng leads Vassar with 145 points on 29 tries this season.
Kwateng connects with senior flyhalf Natalie Ward, who directs a back line with both ample game time, in players like senior inside center Rachel Thompson, and youth, like freshman fullback Laila Blumenthal-Rothchild and sophomore center Cierra Thomas, who is second on the try-scoring list with 10 this season.
Although it can’t be said for every college conference, Vassar entered the ACRA Round of 32 with some competitive games behind them. They were well prepared for Colgate (51-12 win) and then held off Hartford 39-22 in the Round of 16. The following day, Vassar sealed up their Final Four berth with a 41-10 quarterfinal win over Geneseo.
“The only thing we have to worry about is what we’re doing, and we’ll be competitive,” Brown looked ahead to Notre Dame College on Saturday. “If someone tries to do something special – that extra pass or fly up quicker – then they’ll put too much pressure on themselves.”
Brown has tried to reiterate that “business as usual” mantra, not adding any extra practices or deviating from their usual routine. What has been a bit different, but welcomed, is the college’s emphatic support. Upon winning their quarterfinal, a team photo was the lead image on the college website for two days. Congratulations are flowing in from every corner of the faculty, and the team hopes to add to those accolades with another two wins in Florida.
Vassar plays Notre Dame College at 11 a.m. on Saturday in Auburndale, Fla., and the game will be broadcast live here: http://bit.ly/1iDogno