Redstorm rising in Big 10, DI Elite

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - When Indiana reached the USA Rugby Women's Division I Fall Championships Semifinals last year, it was the first time the program had been to a national "final four." Unfortunately for the club labeled the Redstorm, it ran into a Norwich side that was on a multi-year roll.

Part of the reason the Redstorm made such an influence in the Big 10 and national stages last year was a strong, veteran class of athletes. As with any collegiate team, the offseason brings turnover, and Indiana is one of the schools feeling the full effects.

Not only is the team overcoming the loss of knowledgeable rugby players, Head Coach Vaughn Mitchell is throwing more than a fair share of younger girls into the fire, as it were.

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"We graduated so many players last year - 11 or 12 seniors," he said. "It's been a while since I've had to put straight rookies - girls that have never played before - starting in an a-side match."

Indiana is one of eight schools - including reigning DI National Champion Penn State, Brigham Young University, Lindenwood, and New Mexico - to make the jump to the new Women's Division I Elite. To help stave a steep curve in the level of opposition they will face in the spring, the Redstorm opened the fall season with tough nonconference matches against Davenport and Lindenwood.

We have one through 15, but we're trying to work on finding those key subs that can come in and make a difference.

While both matches were losses, Indiana was able to give players much-needed experience to slide in convincing wins against Big 10 Conference foes Michigan State and Michigan, as well as Grand Valley State, scoring 189 points in the three victories.

Last weekend, the Nittany Lions proved once again why they have been defending the DI crown since 2010 in a 60-12 defeat of Indiana, which did not have a match scheduled the weekend prior.

"You can tell a lot from your team and where you have mistakes, because they exploit your mistakes real quick," Mitchell said of the most recent Redstorm opponent. "I thought that we played them pretty well. The morale was high throughout the whole game even though the score didn't show that."

Mitchell praised the leadership of the tight five - including prop Karen Strunk and captain and second-rower Regina Uribe - a group that has been together for a few seasons, as having a positive impact on the more inexperienced players in the side, including the brand-new back row. As a whole, the pack got the better of Penn State's scrums, stealing more than its share of opposition put-ins while maintaining possession through each of its own.

The mistakes to which Mitchell eluded, however, deal more with a basic component of the game of rugby: tackling. While the Redstorm have success in numbers, strength, and technique at the breakdown - as confirmed by Davenport captain and All-American Danielle Ordway following the teams' meeting at the season's onset - the girls will have to become more clinical in their open-field tackles to keep teams like Penn State from having too much time with the ball.

"The breakdown itself is a strength," Mitchell said. "Getting there, rucking, body control, blowing people off the ball, giving them a lot of dirty ball - I think that's our strength. I think what we lack is the tackling sometimes; the one-on-one, in-space tackling. With having so many rookies in the back line, that's where we kind of get exploited."

 Masie Duncan

, it's a lot of 'learn on the go': learning a new sport as you go. They're definitely catching on and getting better each week. They're understanding the game."

This weekend's match against Ohio State will be followed by the final regular season match for the Redstorm: an "away" trip to Purdue. With the confirmed Big 10 results so far this season, Indiana is likely to be one of four teams left to battle for the conference championship. Consisting of a semifinal and final, the Big 10 Championship will be held at Penn State Nov. 7 and 8.

With the DI Elite competition, Indiana will continue playing 15s into the spring rather than switch exclusively to sevens. Though they may not be able to schedule matches against the familiar Big 10 opponents, Mitchell is excited to get his girls some bonding time with multiple road trips.

"With the weather in February we won't be able to get out, but we'll be traveling out to the east coast trying to get games, down south trying to get games, and then during Spring Break do a tour of Savannah, Atlanta," the head coach said. "Just to play as many games as we can."

Follow the Indiana Women's Rugby Football Club on Twitter (@IUWRugby) and Facebook for updates from the weekend in Ohio.