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Baylor Uses Shutdown To Address Improvements

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Baylor Uses Shutdown To Address Improvements

Baylor huddles up in 2018. Jordan Maat photo.

COVID shutdowns and conference hiatuses are being turned into lemonade around the country, and one noticeable example is at Baylor University.

A recent Red River Conference winner (they took home the title in 2017), the Bears had a bit of a weird partial season this year, and are taking the quiet time to return to prominence.

The 2019-2020 iteration of Baylor Rugby entered the season without inspirational leader Stewart Morris, and then lost flanker Griffin Maat to repeated concussions. But with center Taylor McGehee playing superbly the Bears began the season with a win over LSU, and were leading Texas A&M late in the first half of their second game.

That was when McGehee suffered a severe, season-ending broken leg. Baylor scored a try moments after their center was taken off the field, but A&M then rallied from 17-5 down to win 30-17, and Baylor started to struggle after that.

New Head Coach Ron VanAmburgh had his work cut out to bring the team back and they did to a certain extent—after losing convincingly to Oklahoma and North Texas the Bears did finish with victories over Texas Tech and Texas to go 3-3.

"Last season was a tale of two seasons for us really,” said Hering. “We started the fall with a good amount of guys who had played together for a few seasons and had built a good chemistry but we lost two key contributors in junior All American flanker Griffin Maat and senior All Conference center Taylor McGehee to injury and a few other guys stepped away to focus on grades. So in the spring we were working with several underclassmen that just didn't have the experience or chemistry to compete with the top of our league." 

So some things needed to be fixed in terms of recruiting, and coaching focus, and players’ skill levels.

Virtual Improvement

Unable to play this fall, Baylor Rugby ended up making the best of it with a few changes, some meetings, and a series of Zoom get-togethers.

Former Head Coach Mason Hering, who had been serving in a Director of Rugby role, stepped up his involvement. Thanks to his association with the Austin Gilgronis MLR team, he drafted some of the players and coaches to assist in working on aspects of play. This took some of the work off VanAmburgh’s shoulders. Among those who have joined as coaches are former Eagle Andrew Suniula, current Eagle Will Magie, and recent Baylor Rugby grad Luke Davis.

With new virtual sessions among coaches, and also between coaches and players, the Baylor program has started its comeback before it even took the field.

“We looked at rugby values and core skills, and we went over standards we need to achieve and we’d get pro players to come in and talk about what they do and how they work on specific skills and perfect what they do,” said Hering. “We would look at previous match tape and critique. I got Scott Green to come in to do some law sessions and the players really responded to them.”

The law sessions were important because team discipline was a rally-killer last season. 

Despite there not being any rugby for several months, the players remained engaged, with attendance at their Zoom sessions at 80% to 90%.

In-Person Returns

Having switched to non-contact in-person sessions, working with small pods of players, Baylor is a little bit ahead of the return-to-play curve, Hering said. The pods remain intact through training, with equipment cleaned between uses. The pods have shown their effectiveness already. One pod of players who were living in the same house was shut down after a positive COVID test, and that was kept contained as a result.

The players wear masks while working out and Hering said they had suffered no ill effects from doing so. Players can always work on strength and conditioning and that’s been another focus of the fall.

Moneyball

The Baylor program identified specific areas where they were struggling last year: strength and conditioning, discipline, depth, coaching support, and core skills. They have worked to address all of these during the shutdown. Strength and Conditioning can always be monitored and executed remotely. The skills started remotely and are not finding their practical applications. The assistance from area professionals has given Van Armburgh a boost as Head Coach, and the laws sessions will help with the penalties.

Depth? That will rely on some on-campus recruiting, but Baylor has welcomed some talented players attracted in part by the schools academic offerings.

Baylor Addresses Depth With Six Recruits

But the approach is clear: use the shutdown to address areas where there’s a problem, find some help (as other rugby people are available), and use technology and player enthusiasm to find ways to get better