Mary Wash Reflects on Past, Looks to Future
Mary Wash Reflects on Past, Looks to Future
One of the most intriguing facets of the Women’s DII college championship last season was that two unexpected teams made it to the final. Runner-up Cal State Northridge had to play into the Round of 16, and champion Mary Washington was originally eliminated in the quarterfinals.
“You never get a second chance in rugby,” Mary Washington coach Kris Kabza said, reflecting on his team’s 31-19 loss to Appalachian State (AHO) in the Round of 8. But AHO had suffered a couple of key injuries in that game – including the loss of Collegiate All American Lyndsie White – and expressed financial concerns to Erik Geib, USA Rugby competitions manager for State College, Pa. Kabza was made aware of the circumstances but didn’t exactly jump at the chance to take Appalachian’s spot at nationals.
“Probably not,” was Kabza’s response when Geib asked if Mary Washington wanted to take AHO’s vacancy. “We were in this position two years ago. A team dropped out, and as MARFU #4, we were offered the opportunity. Norwich would have been our first game. … We turned it down.”
But Kabza wanted to check with the team first. On the bus ride home from the quarterfinals, the coach shared the recent development.
“Everyone started cheering, you’d have thought we won the match,” Kabza said. “I took that as a, ‘Yes, we want to go.’”
Although the coach was impressed, he was confused. What had changed from two years ago? He questioned his captain, then-senior Carter Moore.
“Two years ago, we hadn’t practiced in two weeks,” Kabza reiterated Moore’s explanation. “We had also lost two matches to finish fourth in MARFU; no one can get up after something like that. Also, the players knew we could’ve won that match [against AHO]. They knew they could win, given the chance, and wanted to prove it.”
Three days later, it was official, and Appalachian State sent what Kabza called a classy e-mail explaining their misfortune and acknowledging that Mary Washington was the stronger team to go onto nationals. AHO had exposed some weaknesses in their defense, which was slow to realize gaps and plug them. So the team had about a week – after exam week – to patch those holes.
Meanwhile, coaches Kabza and Bill Lucas took a look at the budget. The duo have been coaching together for 24 years (Lucas has been at UMW for 26 years) and understand the financial demands of post-season; therefore, the fundraising never stops. The university helped out and some last-minute “begging,” as Kabza called the Go Fund Me campaign, helped raise enough money to take 31 players to Stanford. Kabza was particularly touched by a handful of non-rostered players who wanted to travel with the team but opted to stay home so the out-of-pocket would be less for those playing. The only conflict that arose was the absence of senior flyhalf Ashely Buxton, whose parents weren’t thrilled about her missing graduation (all of the seniors who skipped graduation were honored with a private ceremony with the president of the university and other dignitaries once they returned to Virginia). She flew in Sunday morning, however, and competed in the final.
The rest is history: Mary Washington beat Florida International 29-17 in the semis and Cal State Northridge 36-22 in the final.
So where does that leave Mary Washington now? The Virginia side graduated upward of 12 seniors, but only five of those were starters. The squad carried about 50 players last year, regularly plays A and B side matches, and there are about 15 rising juniors ready to step into vacated senior roles. The forwards have more experience and will be led by prop Kopper Carter and No. 8 Brianna Berling, while the backs will need some time to develop. The team will miss DII Championship MVP Kristina Rader, but UMW still has impact player Elyssa McClain, who did well to make a name for herself in Palo Alto.
In terms of incoming freshmen, that's still an unknown. Despite being a Team Sport (a notch above a club sport, similar to the Penn State model) Mary Washington doesn’t have a formalized recruiting plan, a fact that Kabza regrets and vows to change. Winning the DII championship has sent a couple of recruits Kabza’s way, and there’s been a hint of more university support, but not much has changed – yet – since winning the trophy in May. Of course, it’s difficult to scout high school games when one’s team is simultaneously competing in playoffs.
Kabza resists making any predictions about this year’s team, but the good thing about Mary Washington is it plays a lot of games in advance of its spring matrix season. The team will play DI teams James Madison and Virginia Tech – two sides that UMW hasn’t beaten in years – and DII ACRA runner-up Notre Dame College. A Sunday match, both sides will have played Saturday games, but one suspects the pair will regard the match as more than a friendly.
The DII landscape is an ever-changing one, but right now, Mary Washington is the team to beat, and the rest of this year will be spent gauging if they can repeat their 2014 success.