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Lindenwood Handles Challenges

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Lindenwood Handles Challenges

The word challenge gets thrown around quite a bit in rugby circles, especially when a coach is looking for a difficult opponent to test his players.

One of the biggest problems for good teams at any level is to find games that aren’t blowouts. Lindenwood Head Coach JD Stephenson certainly has been looking for those games, and searched far afield to find them.

This past weekend the Lions traveled to State College, Pa. to play Penn State. It was the last game of the fall for Lindenwood and the last in a long line of challenging matches. The season started with an away game at Indiana August 30, which the Lions won 56-27. But with most colleges deep into their league seasons, Lindenwood had to look elsewhere for a challenge.

“The University is behind what were trying to do,” said Stephenson. “They understand that you don’t learn anything form winning by 50, 60, 70 points. What we wanted to do was put them through the fire again and again and they’d come out like forged steel.”

So they played Palmer College men’s team, and won 19-14. They played the St. Louis Royals and St. Louis Bombers in a double-header - both victories. They took on the Glendale Men’s club, the defending PRP champions, and won 24-15, and followed that up with their first loss, 41-0 against Life University men.

On October 25 they faced Davenport just a week after center Charles Labry had died in an accident. The game was played in his honor (as the Lindenwood-Davenport games will be from now on), but the cloud of the loss was certainly on the Lindenwood team. They lost 7-3.

So on to this weekend, and two weeks to recover and prepare for their final exam, away at Penn State. In that game, the entire squad put in a full performance, said Stephenson. Tries from Nick Markowski, Tamatasi Paogofie-Buyten, Danny White, Nick Feakes, Jeremy Leber, Austin Teijerina (twice), and Jack Huckstepp led LIndnewood to a 52-14 victory.

“We played as a team,” said Stephenson. “The last couple of weeks the guys have really come together. They’ve done everything they needed to do to prepare. And the win was really great for morale. We’re pretty happy with the outcome because this fall has been a hard slog. But that’s what we wanted.”

Essentially, Stephenson looked at the situation he had at Lindenwood - a varsity team in all but name, funding, access to athletes - and made drastically different decisions from those made by his predecessor, Ron Laszewski. When Laszewski piloted Lindenwood to a national DII title in its first year and a national DIAA final in its second, the modus operandi had been to bring in experienced players from overseas and to fatten up on lesser opponents (the Heart of America conference was not a strong conference and Lindenwood routinely scored over 100 points in their games).

But since he took the reins, Stephenson has slowly reduced the number of overseas players on the roster - they are still there, but the number of US-trained student-athletes playing rugby at Lindenwood is increasing - and he has turned his back on blowouts.

From 2011-2013, Lindenwood scored over 100 points ten times, and topped 90 three other times.

Since then, the Lions have topped 100 once, against a local men’s club. Stephenson is painfully aware of how tough last spring was, when Lindenwood finished 2-4 in conference play, losing those four games by an average of four points, and then were outplayed in the DIA playoffs by St. Mary’s to the tune of 72-7.

But even that season included a fall with less-than-stellar opposition. Lindenwood played six games against area clubs (plus Wheeling Jesuit) and won by an average score of 60-11. Only one game could really be described as close. This fall, it’s been very different, as the Lions lost two games, and won two by tight margins.

The change is in the spirit of the game, with good teams looking for tougher opponents at every turn. What that will do for them in the New Year remains to be seen, but in a fall where the challenges have come thick and fast, it seems that the Lindenwood Lions have been up for it.