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Wayne State College has won a Penn Mutual National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO) 15 or 7s title every year for the past five years, and 2016 continued the trend. With their low-score, high-intensity victory over Colgate, 11-0, on Sunday, the Wildcats add another women’s rugby fall championship to its impressive program accolades.
“The team that beat us last year won the national title. The team that beat us in 2011 won the national title,” Wayne State head coach Darrin Barner said. “Our region is very competitive. It felt good with the work we put in for this reward.”
Colgate came out strong in the first minutes of play, producing an early turnover, but Wayne State was quick to regain and keep possession for the majority of the first half. Although Colgate demonstrated lots of forward work and patience, pushing much of the action towards Wayne State’s try zone, the Wildcats combated the Raiders with excellent work from the powerful front line.
In fact, players 1-8 controlled the match almost entirely. Barner noted that he was especially impressed with the performance of junior 8-man Faith Sorenson: “She’s gritty, she’s a workhorse at 8-man. She’s got the power of a prop and the speed of an inside center and the attitude of a linebacker.”
Finally, with 12 minutes remaining in the first half, Colgate was pinged for a penalty, allowing Wayne State’s Sam Warneke get three of a kick. This was the only time the Wildcats made it near Colgate’s try zone in this half, but their effort was clearly rewarded.
As the rain continued to pour, both teams showed sloppy control of the ball in the second half. Yet, even with the slippery conditions, the squads were quite even, and the level of competition remained extremely tight. From the start of the second half, however, the Wildcats exercised more control and strength, despite being locked out of the Colgate try zone.
Penalties were the clear downfall of Colgate’s performance. A second Colgate penalty gave Warneke the opportunity to make a conversion, upping the team’s lead to 6-0 with 21 minutes remaining in the match.
Minutes later, the official gave a yellow card to the Raiders’ scrum captain Meghan Pane, who high-tackled a Wildcat just before she entered the try zone. Unfortunately for Colgate, the try-preventing tackle would come back to bite them; right after the penalty was awarded, Kelsa Didier-Mills scored a try. Warneke was unsuccessful with the conversion, so the score was 11-0 with eight minutes remaining in regulation.
With four minutes remaining, Colgate finally pushed forward and got a scrum right outside the Wildcat’s 22, but time ran out for the veteran second-place finishers. Wayne State’s defense, groomed by former NFL coach Dennis Danielson, was just too good.
“The steel curtain rugby defense that he helped us build shut out an extremely powerful team,” Barner said. “Most rugby teams practice 90 percent offense during the week, but defense is 50% of the game…We might not be the most athletic team, but I can promise this we take great pride in being mentally prepared for each game. Girls had conditioning at 6am two days a week besides rugby practice. They did that 100% on their own, and if not for that own personal commitment, we don’t win that last game. That gave us the strength to compete at that aggressive stage in the game.”
Barner emphasized, however, that Wayne State never once got cocky with their performance - they were focused and ready for a Colgate surge at any moment.
“When you get in games like this and it is down to the closing minutes and your back is against the wall, you just have to tell yourself: hero or zero, man or mouse, champ or chump,” he explained. “This was a gut check on pride… This was not handed to us, we had to work for every single inch we could get, Colgate fought to the final whistle.”
Though the Wildcats’ front line was the main event in the final, the backline – which Barner claims is the best he’s had in 16 years - deserves recognition as well. According to the coach, Wayne State planned to use the power of the backline throughout the game as their primary strategy, but because of the weather conditions’ effect on the ball, adjustments needed to be made.
“We bought a prom dress, and we never got to wear it,” he explained.
While this was not the game the undefeated Colgate squad wanted, they kept it tight and competitive and added even more motivation for the team in the spring and next fall. Wayne State, meanwhile, loses 10 seniors to graduation in the spring. “We need to reload the gun after this season,” Barner said.
But with the deep program Wayne State is cultivating, that shouldn’t be a problem. “Our six national titles with NSCRO have been one without one girl on the team having any prior high school rugby experience,” Barner stressed. “This was all done by raw talent.”