Running Eagles host Lions in DI Elite matchup

MARIETTA, Ga. - The Lindenwood Lions traveled south Friday for a weekend matchup with the Life Running Eagles, set for Saturday, Oct. 31, at 10:30 a.m. ET, at LifeU Rugby Complex.

The match - to be streamed live - pits two of the eight Division I Elite teams together near the end of both squads' fall seasons. The Running Eagles are coming off of a "bye week," while the Lions have used the past two weekends as a proving ground for younger players against senior club sides.

Compared to last season - the school's first in Division I - Life has had a light fall schedule, playing just three matches prior to this weekend. The quality of opponent, however, is much higher, with West Chester, Quinnipiac, and Army all quality programs that have tested the upper echelon teams in DI. The Bobcats took their second 'W' from Life in a year on the back of a doubleheader weekend at the beginning of the month, and remain the only opponents to have beaten the Running Eagles in fall play.

The Running Eagles took last season's opening-day defeat to heart and rattled off 14 wins in the fall and spring to reach the Spring Championships, where they went up against a similarly-young program in Central Washington in the Semifinal. Life went ahead on the scoreboard early, but the Wildcats grew into the game and struck late to advance to the Final and, eventually, the National Championship.

"We were actually leading at the half until about 20 minutes left in the match," Life Head Coach Rosalind Chou recalled. "As much as we work on fitness, it showed a gap that we have."

Chou and the Running Eagles have looked to not only rectify fitness worries, but also get more players into the program with strong recruiting classes to ensure leads do not slip as they did last season. Twenty-one players suited up in green for the match against Central Washington, providing only six players as cover on the bench.

Alternatively, Lindenwood was competing for a fall championship last season, and suffered just two losses - to Chicago Women's Club and Davenport University - on the way to the Fall Championship Final. Penn State came away with the victory, but the Lions gained much-needed experience as it welcomed a mentally-older crop of recruits.

This season, Lindenwood's been on a tear, scoring 534 points in seven victories. Echoing fall 2014, the Lions' only defeat thus far came at the hands of the Nittany Lions in the second game of a weekend road trip.

Most recently, the Lions are coming off of back-to-back defeats of senior clubs. The first team beat Kansas City Jazz Rugby Club, 88-0, a week after a doubleheader trip to Virginia and North Carolina before a second XV shut out St. Louis Sabers. The second-side match gave a number of starters rest after a long couple of months, and offered Lindenwood Head Coach Billy Nicholas a dearth of options - and headaches - in terms of future selections.

Any time you're playing a women's club, there's one thing for sure: they're strong players and very physical at the breakdown, so it was good for our bodies to rest up for this week heading into this match.Billy Nicholas

"It's extremely difficult [to make selections] each week, to be honest," Nicholas admitted. "There are so many girls here really working hard to get into a position to continually play on the first-grade side. They've consistently shown they can play well."

Both teams have eyes on the spring, when the DI Elite teams will battle for a championship, but have used the fall to find the rhythm of a championship team. While Lindenwood has strength in numbers, Life has 13 of 15 returning starters from the Spring Championship Semifinal squad, providing continuity in place of a heavy schedule.

PAWS AND WINGS

USA Rugby AIG Women's Collegiate All-American Sevens selection and attendee of a National All-Star Competition, Nicole Strasko returned to Marietta with more experiences to add to her captain's résumé. The senior will go up against a fellow age-grade All-American in Gioanna Cruz, who transferred to Lindenwood in the spring.

"Strasko is the epitome of a leader," Chou said. "We are so lucky as a coaching staff to have someone like her. She's a general and has the utmost respect from all of her teammates."

"I know [Cruz and Strasko] are very athletic," Nicholas said. "Both of them have definitely shown that they're leaders on their respective sides, too, so that'll be a good one to watch."

The two No. 8s will lead their respective packs, but the game may be decided in the backs, where both Life and Lindenwood boast pace and skill. Chou pointed to sophomore Cynthia Kelly as a returning player that truly used the summer to improve her own game to better the team's.

[Cynthia Kelly] started playing in middle school, so she's got a wealth of knowledge, but she has taken feedback from last year and really stepped up her game. More than anything is her ability to adjust and analyze what's going on in the game. She has grown and matured across the board on and off the pitch.Rosalind Chou

Kelly, a backup scrum half for the Running Eagles, will line up in the centers Saturday, where she will match up against Lions freshman Morgan Courtney. Hannah Gauthreaux, who transferred to Lindenwood after earning Women's Division II National Championship Most Valuable Player honors last season, will most likely wear the No. 13 shirt.

McKenzie Hawkins, another Lindenwood freshman with age-grade international experience, has assisted sophomore scrum half AnnaKaren Pedraza from the fly half position, also kicking the Lions' goals.

We might project [McKenzie Hawkins] as a different position after this year, but right now she's been our decision-maker around the pack. She's done a great job of taking that leadership role as such a young player.Billy Nicholas

"You look at that whole back line and kinda match people up and you're like, 'Wow, that's going to be a really good matchup,'" Nicholas said. "I think we'll definitely push each other as far as the fitness goes. Both teams will be looking to play the full 80 [minutes].

"We recognize Life is a very high-ranked opponent and they're very skilled. There's no doubt this is an important match for us."

"I think Lindenwood has incredible athletes," Chou said. "Additionally, we have some skilled backs, as well. I think it'll be a fast-paced game. We're going to see mobile forwards and skilled backs."

While this may not necessarily be the matchup of the season for either of these teams, both have the support of their schools' men's programs, which have been ranked in the top five of the D1A Rugby Canterbury Top 20 Rankings going back to 2013 and compete in the competition's Mid-South Conference.

On top of that, the match will offer a look at the level of play to expect from the DI Elite competition in the spring. The match will be streamed live on Life University's website, after which the broadcast will switch to the Running Eagles' Elite Training Group match against New York Athletic Club in the American Rugby Premiership.