Gray-led BYU ready for opener against Air Force

"Everyone on the team must learn to hold their own and perform at the highest level."

BOULDER, Colo. - Some of the best college rugby is being played in Provo, Utah, and it's not just the men on campus.

The women of Brigham Young University officially joined college rugby's elite last season when they reached the USA Rugby Spring Championship. A ferocious second-half comeback from Central Washington led to a 29-15 Wildcat win and ended BYU's season, but the National Semifinal appearance was the first of many well-earned accomplishments heading the Cougars' way.

BYU's next accomplishment would come way of a victory over Air Force Academy Sept. 26. The Cougars head to the Academy for their first Mountain West Conference match of the season to face a Zoomie team sure to be an underdog, but always a side that punches above its weight.

"I'm expecting a very physical encounter from this Saturday's game," said BYU Head Coach Tom Waqa. "Air Force is a very disciplined team, and we're excited for this weekend and look forward to the encounter."

Air Force will have to be every bit as physical as Waqa and his staff are anticipating. BYU leans on a very strong forward pack, which includes All-American prop Rebekah Boaz and playmaking flanker Justina Grubb. However, the player that will require several sets of eyes keying on her for 80 minutes is Jordan Gray. The No. 8 had a dominating 2014-15 season that went noticed by the Women's Eagles coaching staff, who plucked Gray to start all three matches in this summer's Women's Rugby Super Series.

"Jordan Gray has been the anchor for the team for the last couple seasons," Waqa said of his capped Eagle. "She had a fine season last year, and will be working hard to help BYU have another successful season."

As influential as Gray has been, Waqa wants to make sure the other 14 Cougars on the pitch are playing up to their potential.

"She brings with her a lot of experience being a Women's National Team representative this past summer," explained the head coach. "However, I certainly do not want the team to rely too much on players with that caliber. Everyone on the team must learn to hold their own and perform at the highest level."

No player suiting up for the cadets will be an Eagle, but Air Force brings its own supply of experienced muscle to the forward pack - especially in the front row. Hooker Yaira Diaz and prop Jade Digg are standouts from a season ago, and are often used to produce go-forward ball on attack. Defensively, Gianna Khoudary likes to be the one going forward. Used as a back last year, Khoudary has been moved to flanker this season to better utilize her tackling prowess.

New Air Force coach Amy Rusert is still getting acclimated to her roster, but really likes what she's seen out of her squad thus far.

"We have a great mix of promising young players, and a solid group of returners focused on team play, while becoming individual and collective students of the game," observed Rusert.

Given the turnover on the roster, as well as the coaching staff, the Zoomies plan on keeping Saturday's game plan fairly simple.

"Support, discipline, and earnestness at the point of contact are going to be the primary areas of focus," Rusert said.

Air Force won't be the only team taking the pitch this weekend with players experiencing their first Mountain West match. BYU said goodbye to several graduating seniors in the spring, but have collected a number of talented freshmen to help replenish the roster. Most notably amongst the newcomers to the BYU campus is fly half Eternity Tenney, who won a Utah high school state championship with Orem Rugby Club, as well as Leti Hingano and Emma Workman from California.

Sept. 26's Mountain West battle will kick off at 11 a.m. MT on the campus of the United States Air Force Academy.