Mary Washington heads into this weekend preparing for its toughest competition this season: their alumni. The DII women’s college joined the newly formed Capital conference and is currently sitting atop the South division 4-0, having outscored opponents 207-10. The team’s final matrix match against William & Mary (3-0, 146-19) will be the highlight of the regular season.
But Mary Washington learned its lesson last year. In 2012-13, the Virginia school dominated opponents in similar fashion, earned an at-large bid to the national Round of 32, and then lost to Appalachian State in the first round.
“Last year, we had a false sense of talent because we didn’t face any serious competition during the year,” Mary Washington assistant coach Bill Lucas commented on the effect of not playing in a conference. “It was a rude awakening in the playoffs. This year, we have a better sense of who we are.”
That awareness comes with a dose of humility, courtesy of Appalachian State. The coaches went to work and started addressing some of the shortcomings that became evident during the previous post-season.
“We’re definitely stronger; our defense is better,” Lucas said. “I coach our backs, and I told the players that I was leaning toward picking the best seven defenders and making the best offense I could out of them. That was a problem last year – bad shape on defense and poor tackling.”
That ultimatum didn’t come to fruition, as some personnel changes made the transition easier.
“It hasn’t affected our offense strategy,” Lucas said of choosing players with an eye to defense. “I’m actually pleased. Last year, we had two seniors in the centers. The centers this year actually move the ball better and are defending better.”
Mary Washington is also blessed with speed, so the coaches have been focusing attention on quicker transitions between breakdowns.
“We’re working on possession in contact, trying to rein in a couple of people who try for the last two yards and end up losing possession instead,” Lucas said. “We’re working on quicker ball after the breakdown and a quick attack.”
Still, Mary Washington hasn’t faced competition that truly tests these areas of wanted improvement; that’s when competing in a conference comes in handy. After the team’s fifth and final league match, Mary Washington and William & Mary will represent the South division at the Capital final four. Salisbury has already locked up the top spot in the North, and the second seed will come down to the final week. On Nov. 9-10, UMW will get some perspective on their strength, but Lucas is optimistic.
“This is one of the stronger squads we’ve had in recent years,” Lucas said. “We’re a pretty veteran team – 10 returners in the backs, all capable of playing on the first side. We have a lot of depth in the forwards, too. We picked up some rookies who have showed promise. … They’re all working really hard. We’re replicating last year, easily beating weaker teams, but they recognize that there are ones much better out there.”
There’s an element of “out there” in many college scenarios recently and into the foreseeable future. Winning a conference title doesn’t necessarily mean hosting your Round of 32 game – or that you’ll know who you’re playing until a couple of weeks prior. A team like Navy might up and leave their conference for another (ACRA), while opponents are clueless to the defection. We might see ACRA champions competing in USA Rugby’s championships.
Many more wait-and-sees once the Capital season ends, but at least Mary Washington knows the term "heavy favorite" is relative as the post-season nears.