Once a team has established dominance in its league, it’s difficult to gauge just how good that squad is from year to year. Penn State, for example, will win the Big 10 easily, and they’ll challenge themselves by working with a different lineup every game. But the reigning DI college champions aren’t the only ones that must look internally for the best competition; they’re just the most prolific. Northern Iowa has emerged as the team to beat in the Midwest, and they’re finding fun ways to push their development.
UNI is posting big scores this league season – 134-0 vs. UW Milwaukee, 54-3 vs. Iowa State – much like last year, and the year before. What’s different about this Panthers squad is the higher-level experience that’s pervading the ranks.
The Midwest Thunderbirds toured Wales over the summer, and in addition to several Collegiate All Americans (CAAs), the squad included eight Panthers.
“The experience we were able to have playing overseas with one another has definitely affected the cohesion and skill level of our team here at UNI,” Thunderbird and Panthers captain Meghan Flanigan said. “All of us have starting positions, and we are able to bring a higher-level atmosphere into our practices and our games, just from the experience we had playing with a territorial team this summer. I think it also helps us teach those who are new to the team at UNI.”
These representative tours are unique, Flanigan notes, and produce different results than trips taken with UNI teammates alone.
“When you start to play for territorial teams and even the CAAs, every aspect of the game changes,” Flanigan explained. “The speed of the game changes, the atmosphere even changes. … The difference between a Midwest tour and a UNI tour is the fact that, when you get into that upper level, you are basically trying to better yourself as an individual player; whereas going on a tour with UNI, we would be trying to better ourselves as a whole team. Both, however, have their perks of course.”
Those eight players who competed on tour have brought home a tangible uptick in skill, but they’ve also returned with tales of a rugby-loving country, infecting teammates with the desire to personally create those memories.
“All three teams we played saw us as the US national team, and even all the locals saw us as that as well,” Flanigan said. “We made the local paper a few times before we even played, and the entire surrounding area knew that we were coming. It motivated us to do well and help represent America in a positive way. I think we surprised a lot of people in Wales with how well we did. We went 2-1, and the game we lost, we only lost by seven points. So we were definitely very successful over there, and we opened up a lot of eyes and even shut down some stereotypes on how rugby in America is portrayed overseas.”
So what you have is a significant group of leaders who are better rugby players – not just because they’re upperclassmen, but because of international rugby – and push the general level of performance across the team. Hopefully for UNI, the trickle-down will not only be seen this season but in the future as underclassmen strive to also wear the Thunderbird jersey.
“Every year I have higher expectations for UNI and I think a lot of it just has to do with the gaining of experience each year,” Flanigan said. “The tour definitely has a lot to do with it this year. Because we did so well and we had so many UNI players who went, the bar we have set is definitely high. But because we have eight of us who are all coming in with that higher-intensity experience, it helps with setting the tone at UNI at a higher pace, and I have no doubt in my mind that we will be successful and will continue to be successful for years to come.”
UNI take a break from league play this weekend but restarts the path to ACRA nationals next weekend against UW Madison. Click on the links for the Midwest DI conference's current standings and results.