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Coaching Reload Sparks Washington University as Gateway Surprise

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Coaching Reload Sparks Washington University as Gateway Surprise

Washington University flyhalf Joe Kim goes into contact. Christine Krug photo.

Hey wait a minute, what about Washington University?

Not considered a contender in a Gateway Conference that has had plenty of contenders, Washington has vaulted itself to the top of the conference pecking order with a 60-0 defeat of Maryville and, this past weekend, a somewhat shocking 45-15 defeat of #24 St. Louis University.

Basically out of nowhere, Washington is now 2-0 and it's a 2-0 in emphatic fashion.

This all came out of a bit of a coaching crisis in the Gateway Conference. More than a few teams were struggling coming out of the COVID shutdowns and Gateway Commissioner Justin Whitton (SLU's Coach) got to work trying to find coaches for teams. Whitton certainly deserves credit for thinking about the conference over and above his team, trying to get more teams on the field. He succeeded in his efforts, and convinced Bryce Krug to work with the Washington University side.

A Two-Way Street

"He told me this was a hard-working bunch of guys that were trying to move the program forward but that they were coaching themselves," Krug told GRR.

Whitton knew Krug worked at the University, so he figured it wouldn't be too hard for him to walk across campus and help out.

"It was interesting," said Krug, who is the Senior Director of Advancement at WashU's McKelvey School of Engineering. "You have to give them credit for their drive to keep the program going during COVID and organizing all the training sessions themselves during that time."

Along with Krug, others from local teams—St. Louis Bonbers, St. Louis Hornets, Lindenwood University—all came to help out.

"Everyone saw there was potential in these guys and wanted to help give them a platform for success," said Krug.

So WashU played, and Krug agreed to help out while also making time for his daughter's last season of high school softball.

"I needed to focus on her but agreed to a meeting with the team captains," Krug explained. "I was really impressed by their enthusiasm for the game and their desire to compete, so I agreed to help out as was able.  I would say that while some of the results were tough, I could definitely see our opportunities. The Gateway league has a lot of talent. Like most non-varsity programs, a few of our players may have had the chance to learn rugby in high school, but most are coming over from other sports and figuring out the laws and the strategy on the field.  If you look at the matrix that NCR has developed, considering WashU’s academic entrance requirements and NCAA DIII footprint, we look more like a small college program than a D2 program. That might seem like we’re at a disadvantage in the D2 league, but I like to think that gives us a little bit of an advantage because these guys are able to leverage their intelligence with their athleticism."

Harsh Lesson Off the Field

Some paperwork errors meant Washington U couldn't compete in last year's postseason. That was a harsh lesson that the team executive board took to heart. They dove into how that all happened and made sure that going forward the players would be able to play unimpeded. With that under the control, several WashU players participated in summer 7s. What they did there was experiment and work on what they had learned through the 2021-22 season.

"The transformation I’ve seen in those players has been astounding," said Krug. "Playing against senior men forced them to evaluate their strategies and adapt. They understand the game so much better, both technically and physically, and are able to translate what they learned into effective 15s strategies. The fact that St. Louis provides this opportunity for players to develop is huge — we see high school students, college students returning home for summer, college students staying for summer, and senior men all enjoying the pitches at Emerson Central Fields, one of the best public rugby facilities in America."

Krug and the coaches kept working on executing the basics. 

"It doesn’t matter if we have a sweet backline move planned if we don’t make or catch the pass," said Krug. "Likewise, if our guys can’t tackle we won’t be able to win games.  We’ve been fortunate to be able to partner with the St. Louis Hornets to get some help with scrum and lineup technique, and to develop some variations in our backline attacks as well."

Athletes and Leaders

The results of those efforts are seen in the results on the field.

Captains Scott Lewis and Joe Kim have led well and sparked what has been a full team effort. Lewis is the flyhalf and learned his rugby growing up in Grand Cayman. He has a good eye for what is the right option and he's a powerful runner who challenges tacklers.

At outside center, Kim cromes from a football background and is athletics, powerful, has good hands, is shifty, and can tackle.

Sandro Celibidachi plays fullback and inside center and is an athletic former soccer player who can tackle. He was the player of the game against SLU, showing his kicking skills and elusive running. When he's not at fullback Josh Sidelsky is and he's been effective, also.

Scrumhalf Liam Mulkerin has an infectious enthusiasm and energy and has great ball skills, while flanker Ethan Wedge is a devastating runner and also does the lineout throws. He pulled off a 50-meter thundering run against SLU. 

Up front George Johnson is a strong tighthead prop with running skills, and locks Cole Wofford and Owen Reinheirt work well together and control the game in tight.

All of that combined with more athletes who have taken on the role of running the team when they didn't have a coach, and now absorbing the coaching help they've received, makes Washington University more than a surprise; they're a complete turnaround.