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Confidence and Trust Help Sacred Heart to Opening NIRA Win

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Confidence and Trust Help Sacred Heart to Opening NIRA Win

Jasmin Quinones fends off some Princeton attention. Greg Vasil photo.

Making their debut in NIRA Princeton got a warm rugby welcome from Sacred Heart to the tune of a 53-21 defeat handed out by the Pioneers.

While Sacred Heart has had to work hard to challenge in the upper echelon of NIRA’s D1, what this result shows is how far the Pioneers have come, and also how spending time in the women’s NCAA league actually creates separation between Varsity and Club programs.

“We weren’t exactly sure what to expect from Princeton,” said Sacred Heart Head Coach Michelle Reed. “We know that [Princeton Coach] Josie [Ziluca} is a great coach, but how inexperienced were they? As we want into the game we wanted to let them know what it’s like to be in NIRA, and welcome them to way we’ve been welcomed.”

That they did. Tries from Fabiola Millien-Faustin, Makinzie Youngblood, and Aly Cunningham, with Cunningham converting all three, put the Pioneers ahead 21-0 within 10 minutes. Cunningham went on to score two tries, six conversions, and two penalty goals for 28 points, while Millien-Faustin scored twice and Jasmin Quinones and Emily Egan also scored.

Princeton got two tries in the middle of the game and one more at the end, but it was Sacred Heart playing with confidence that was notable. Reed said that confidence came out of the R7CC tournament in Atlanta, where they beat Queens and  pushed Harvard to close out the event after two early losses to Life and Army.

“It was motivating for us,” said Reed. “It gave them belief and showed them they could compete at that level. They came out of it wanting to be better.”

That showed in things like players taking to their voluntary summer workouts with enthusiasm and arriving on campus fit and ready to go. It showed in a more unified approach.

“We showed we can play together, we can have a connection,” said Reed. That, she added, has come from building trust among the players. “Trust is a word you can say but you can’t trust somebody unless you have a connection. When we’re playing well we’re communicating, and when we start to get tired we get quiet. Right now we’re talking on the field and we’re working with urgency—good line speed, jumping on balls, getting there in support. This last game I saw more emphasis on that.”

It wasn’t perfect. There were mistakes. Reed said at least two of the Princeton tries were punishment for those mistakes. But the belief is there. Flyhalf Cunningham helps give that with some smart playmaking and a really strong kicking game. Early on in her time at Sacred heart Cunningham told Reed that she understood that practicing kicking takes time away from training, so she committed to practicing her kicks on her own. It shows.

“It’s that quiet stuff she’s doing behind the scenes,” said Reed.

Meanwhile, prop Sam Carroll has emerged as a leader by example. She isn’t scoring the tries but she’s hitting rucks, ensuring clean possession, and making tackles.

“She’s done an amazing job for us,” said Reed.

It’s a good start for Sacred Heart, but there’s a lot of rugby to be played. They take on Brown this coming weekend and Dartmouth a week later. Harvard and Quinnipiac are on the horizon with (mercifully) bye weekends before each one, and the Pioneers finish the regular season against Army. It won’t be easy, but then, they just told Princeton that.