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What the Old Cal Days of Dominance Means to D1 Elite

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What the Old Cal Days of Dominance Means to D1 Elite

Lindenwood is unbeaten, and should enjoy it, but they got there by not being complacent. So why should anyone else be? Todd Lunow photo.

It's easy to forget, but things in college rugby used to be different—a lot different.

It's easy to forget because college players are still young, and we're talking about 15, 20, 25 years ago. It's easy to forget because the coaches are all pretty young, too, and were playing and not really focused on the larger picture. We're talking about the times when those prominent in the women's college game  were college students or in high school.

MA Sorensen Nominations Named

When Penn State and Cal Ruled

But way back then, there were only a few dominant college rugby teams. On the women's side, it was Stanford, and Penn State. Seriously, except for the odd year when someone special joined a particular team and launched them into prominence, it was those two.

On the mens side, it was even more so. Cal was THE team. It was Cal and then someone who had caught lightning in a bottle, only for the lightning to be snuffed out in the final. Not always, but almost always. From 1991 through 2008, Cal won 17 of those 18 national collegiate championships, being upset by Air Force in 2003, a team that produced two Eagles, had a few more Eagle-caliber players, and was just very, very special.

Among the women, from 1995 to 2014, Penn State made 18 out of the 20 national finals. Stanford made nine. Princeton made six. Air Force only two in that period, but won both. 

The message here is, generally speaking, men's and (to a lesser extent) women's college rugby was dominated by one program that "had all the advantages." They had money, and all the good players went there, and somehow it was all a bit unfair, said those who looked to explain it. Rather than face up to the fact that there was more they could do, teams didn't want to play them. In the playoffs, sometimes you'd see a team essentially tank their first-round game against Cal because they needed to save themselves for the consolation game the next day, because that's where their region justified more seeds to the playoffs next year (where someone could also ship 100 points to Cal).

But there was a lesson there. There was no real secret to what Cal did (although several million dollars in endowment didn't hurt). It was about a process, and expectations, and standards. There was no real secret to what Penn State did. Any coach could ask to show up at those teams' trainings and observe and sit for a few beverages with Jack Clark or Pete Steinberg and pick their brain. Many did.

Be Prepared for Players to Walk Away

And this write spent some time talking about it. The message on the old GoffonRugby site was generally the same—forget the excuses. Try to emulate what you can emulate and get down to work. Silly behavior that made athletic director roll their eyes should be shelved. Expect standards. Be prepared for some players to walk when you expect them to (horrors) work hard at training, not party the night before a game, and show up on time. And that happened. More and more coaches did that, creating the environment we have now, with college programs that have standards—standards, by the way, that the players want.

Student-athletes don't want to waste their time. 

Is This What's Happening in D1 Elite?

So we we come to what's going on now, specifically in D1 Elite. This is a league of the six best non-NIRA teams in the country. There's really no doubt they are the strongest. Watch their games and then watch the game from other divisions and you'll see. So far in 2024, Grand Canyon, which is 0-4 among D1 Elite teams, has beaten their six D1 opponents by an average score of 50-5 (actually, fun fact, it's exactly 50—300 points in six games). 

But even within this realm there's a hierarchy. We saw this the last three weeks. On February 25 Life University defeated Penn State 106-0, which is a pretty astonishing score. Life Head Coach Ryszard Chadwick said his team had work to do. Certainly it was a bit more of a tussle a week later when Life beat Central Washington 22-0. Azhinaye Barner, Lissa Salisbury, and Matilda Kojac all scored tries and Nina Mason added a penalty and two conversions for the win.

This was a hugely impressive showing because it was a shutout of a really good Central Washington. CWU had beaten GCU and BYU and had hung in there with Lindenwood 25-12. But winning on the road at Life University isn't an easy proposition.

"We had the moments and opportunities; we didn't take advantage," said CWU Head Coach Matt Ramirez. "It's difficult to win games without your set-piece and committing penalties in areas where it will cost you. The season doesn't get easier, so it's time to start digging in deeper and committing to the details."

See the ongoing theme? No excuses, win big or lose ... address what you need to address, and chase those standards.

A week later Lindenwood got back into the fray with a 46-15 defeat of CWU (this would be last weekend, March 9). Lindenwood is led by Sorensen Award nominees Freda Tafuna, Amy Brice, and Taina Tukuafu and Lindenwood entered that game unbeaten in D1 Elite. They left it unbeaten, too.

Loving the Challenge

"We love playing against CWU because every time we line up against them we know they're going to test us," Lindenwood Head Coach Trevor Locke told GRR. "That's what we relish about those opportunities. We have a good relationship with them so it was a great game from that aspect, too."

But winning isn't the goal. Winning is the outcome from achieving the goals, from holding to those standards. When Lindenwood is winning most of their games by 50 or more they have to be hard on themselves—same with Life, which obviously didn't take it easy after a 100-point win vs Penn State.

"Mentally we need to check in and realize that we need to keep moving forward and keep improving," said Locke. "We've addressed it and, yes, it is difficult to keep to those standards when the wins become rattled off. It becomes the expectation to win. For us against CWU we were able at times to mind our shape on attack but defensive;y we have a little bit of a penalty problem and that hurt us. What we have to do is retain the realization that nothing is given. Winning is something you have to earn. So yes we talk about it consistently, because if you don't speak about it, it becomes a problem."

Teams at this level have to challenge themselves. Playing Dartmouth in the fall was one of those challenges for Lindenwood (Lindenwood won 30-15). They were playing a team they never see in a state they never travel to and a style they almost never encounter. 

"We went into the unknown, a brander new style of game, and a fresh perspective, it was awesome," said Locke.

Now Lindenwood and Life face off. For Locke this is a good part of the schedule because playing Central and then Life, one away and one at home, replicated the pressure of the postseason, which is fast approaching.

"Life always shows up ready to play from minute 1 to minute 80," said Locke. "There is no switching off against those teams. One passage of play off and you pay for it. It puts us under pressure so you're not unfamiliar with postseason pressure. It physically and mentally gets us in those right areas. We're looking forward to it."

The Two Will Become Four Will Become ...

So let's circle around a little bit. Yes there is a smaller talent pool coming out of high school for young women than there is for young men. But there is talent out there. But it's also about holding to high performance standards. It's about consistently building something. This is what Central, Penn State, BYU, and GCU are doing in chasing Lindenwood and Life. They aren't curling up into a ball and saying "they have so many advantages; it's not fair!" Instead, they are working with what they have and trying to get better every day.

That is how teams chased down Cal. From the days when Cal was the only one, BYU emerged as a challenger, and, eventually, a stronger team. Quietly, intensely, Saint Mary's had been working to get there, and then came Life, Arkansas State, and Central Washington. Now there are eight or nine teams that you could legitimately say could win the men's D1A championship. We're not there in D1 Elite—Lindenwood and Life look to be the front-runners once more—but we're inching closer. And, really, can anyone afford to do anything different?

Unofficial D1 Elite standings—Lindenwood sits above life thanks to head-to-head.

D1 Elite W L T PF PA PD BT BL Pts
Lindenwood 6 0 0 294 38 256 6 0 30
Life 6 1 0 355 45 310 6 0 30
Central Washington 2 4 0 133 156 -23 2 0 10
BYU 2 4 0 130 194 -64 2 0 10
Penn State 0 2 0 16 143 -127 0 0 0
Grand Canyon 0 4 0 13 289 -276 0 0 0