Lindenwood up to the task in DI Elite

ST. CHARLES, Mo. - Lindenwood University is one of eight teams to have joined the new Division I Elite competition in the collegiate ranks, along with the likes of University of New Mexico, Brigham Young University, and reigning Division I National Champion Pennsylvania State. While the Lions have already tested themselves against the best in a doubleheader weekend, the young squad is primed for two consecutive weekends of senior club opposition.

Already 5-1 on the young fall season, Lindenwood - without a DI conference this year - is hosting Kansas City Jazz Rugby Club and St. Louis Sabers at Harlen C. Hunter Stadium in St. Charles "to provide some home matches for the girls," Head Coach Billy Nicholas explained.

"Some of the collegiate programs don't have the ability to have large travel budgets," he said. "It's tough for us to get a ton of home matches over here, so we wanted to schedule a couple home matches to play on our home turf. Locally, we have great women's programs."

Nicholas will look to assess the depth of his squad in Missouri after traveling east with 27 players to battle University of Virginia and University of North Carolina - a weekend that saw the Lions score 108 points with only five conceded.

In contrast, Lindenwood scored 36 points over a two-day period in matches against Army and Penn State at the end of September, defeating the former, 30-3. Fatigued from a tough clash with the cadets the day before, the Lions kept Penn State to its lowest points-scoring total since last spring in a 30-6 loss.

"We've kind of created – not a rivalry – but excitement."

It was Penn State that ended Lindenwood's run at the Championship last season, an 88-0 loss at the regional stage of the USA Rugby Women's Division I Fall Championships. Looking past the disappointment of missing out on the spring Final, the Lions switched gears to sevens and held a 14-6 record through their last match at College 7s.

"It was a good split for us," Nicholas said. "I really like being able to coach and have players be versatile enough to play 15s and sevens. I think they get a lot from the two different styles of the game."

Though the girls did not win a championship in either code, they were given a break during the summer, with only a strength and conditioning plan assigned. Some played sevens for local clubs, while others, like incoming freshmen Morgan Courtney and McKenzie Hawkins, spent time with USA Rugby national teams or attended a National All-Star Competition.

The Lions came into the 2015-16 season refreshed, and it showed with dominating, 130-point-plus wins against University of Northern Iowa and Indiana to open the campaign. It was the doubleheader in State College, Pa., that was circled on the fixture list, however.

"Last year was quick; a whirlwind of things," Nicholas, hired just days before Lindenwood's 2014-15 season began, said. "For us, it was about getting our foot in the ground and building a foundation for us to build on. I think we've done that from last year to this year in terms of growth of the program and competitiveness of schedule.

"We knew [Penn State and Army] were high-ranked teams, and both in front of us. We've kind of created - not a rivalry - but excitement. It's always got to be exciting to play the No. 1 team in the nation, so to play them pretty tight when they're fresh - after [we played] Army the night before - was pretty exciting. We look forward to a fresh, one-off matchup with that team."

It used to be a lot of girls would have their first rugby experience at Lindenwood, and now they're coming in with experiences and they don't have to feel the pressure of having to be that scoring machine like they were for their high school programs; now they get to spread it out and focus on improving themselves.

Billy Nicholas, Lindenwood Women's Rugby Head Coach

Along with the experiences of All-Americans, the Lions have also been propelled by the transfer of 2015 Women's Division II Most Valuable Player Hannah Gauthreaux from Notre Dame College, while Richelle Stephens is currently taking online courses from the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., as she vies for an Olympic appearance with the Women's Eagles Sevens.

Nicholas attributes much of this season's successes to the youth in his squad, which has not missed a beat in replacing student-athletes graduated from the program. Junior and AIG Women's Junior All-American Gioanna Cruz and Hawkins join seniors Amanda Divich and Morgan Crowell in the leadership group.

The program does not rely on its All-Americans or any one player for victories, either.

"I think the balance is the fact that the growth of the program from year one to year two is that we do have some bigger names, but, at the same time, we're competing so well that Hannah isn't getting her 30 scores a match like she used to, and Gio Cruz can rely on some of her other forwards in the pack to do some work, as well," Nicholas said.

"Apart from the odd hat trick here and there by a player - and it usually switches up who gets it - we spread the scoring out pretty evenly across the board, which has been pretty cool to watch."

Following the home matches in the next two weekends, Lindenwood will travel to Marietta, Ga., to face Life University before finishing the fall campaign against Iowa State in St. Charles. The Running Eagles reached the Spring Championship Semifinal in their first competitive season in 2015, and join the Lions in the DI Elite competition.

Following the fall campaign, Lindenwood will switch into sevens mode before a couple of "warmup" matches to get in the mood for the DI Elite playoffs.

"The landscape of rugby and the conferences and everything that's going on is so dynamic that we'll be ready to shift with it when we need to," Nicholas said. "But one thing's clear: we'll always have a focus on both 15s and sevens, no matter what the seasonality is. We want to be able to provide the girls with both of those."