Wildcats "better" than 2014-15 runner-ups

ELLENSBURG, Wash. - A little more than five months ago, 12 Central Washington University women's rugby players left the University of Denver campus without a championship trophy, falling to Pennsylvania State University at the 2015 USA Rugby Emirates Airline College 7s National Championship.

Weeks earlier, the Nittany Lions had kept the Wildcats from celebratory hardware in the 15s code of the game, scoring 11 tries in the title bout at Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

The Wildcats played in 15 15s matches and a sevens qualifier prior to the 2015 Spring Championships in Pittsburgh, where they were tested to the limit by Life University and Brigham Young University over the course of two days. Central Washington overturned leads by both opponents to move onto the National Championship.

"We had an incredibly long fall season that went until Thanksgiving, then we started again in the first week of February and played a lot of games that were not very competitive," Wildcats Head Coach and Women's Eagle Mel Denham said of the program's first full campaign. "It was a lot of time and a lot of travel; it took a toll on [the players'] bodies and their minds."

The young squad may not have shocked the collegiate landscape with its appearance in the National Championship Finals, what with its varsity status in Ellensburg and crop of All-Americans and Eagle hopefuls, but it may be tough to suggest the team was fully ready for the task of taking down the perennial powerhouse that is Penn State.

"Some of it was inexperience, and just the inexperience of playing in a championship match," Denham said. "Again, we were kind of starting to feel a bit of burnout. At the end of the BYU game in the Spring Championship, I remember thinking, 'Oh, man - they're done.' You could see that that was the peak."

Matches against the likes of nearby University of Washington, Washington State University, and the two Oregon schools - against whom Central Washington kept an undefeated record with a combined 571-36 score line in eight matches - peppered the team's schedule, with Quinnipiac and senior club side Seattle Saracens the only competitive opposition until the playoffs.

This year, Denham has ensured the Wildcats will stay hungry and fit for the upcoming Division I Elite playoffs - which will take place in April ahead of the May 7, 2016, National Championships - with a "light" fall schedule. Only a trip to the east coast for matches against Norwich and Quinnipiac, 66-17 and 33-17 wins, respectively, took Central Washington away from the Pacific Northwest.

A doubleheader weekend against Oregon and Western Oregon was cancelled this week, ending the fall season, which began with a heavy defeat of senior club Oregon Rugby Sports Union and ends with an 8-0 record.

"My goal over the summer was to schedule a short and sweet, competitive fall season with second games for developmental purposes, knowing that we have two sides," Denham said. "We wanted that high-quality, low quantity of matches so that, when we're playing, we're actually growing under pressure each game, so that by the time we do get to the championship this year we'll have the experience and skills to operate under pressure."

To say last year's team was young is an understatement, as Denham lost just one player to graduation between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 campaigns. Though a few players stopped playing rugby in Kittitas Valley, another skilled group of recruits have strengthened the squad, and 10 returning Wildcats attended a national team assembly or played for a national team of some kind in the summer.

Sophomore center Asinate Serevi went undefeated in All-American gear, helping the AIG Women's Junior All-Americans to a two-match sweep of Canada's under-20s (alongside sophomore lock Jennifer Johnson) on her home turf and a five-match undefeated streak in the AIG Women's Collegiate All-American Sevens team's title-winning performance at Elite City Sevens. In addition to national team representation, she was also called into Seattle Saracens' side at Club 7s, where the team finished as runner-up.

Johnson, Rosalind Pena, Kayla Postula, Ashley Rolsma, Haley Schafer, Serevi, and Angela Ve'evalu, as well as incoming freshman Leah Ingold, also attended one or both of the National All-Star Competitions, where they were seen by coaching staffs of each of the women's national teams.

The experience gained at national team assemblies cannot be replicated, but the coaching staff at Central Washington has made a point to instill a sense of leadership in every player that pulls on the black and crimson.

"Part of our culture is having a very inclusive and welcoming environment," Denham said. "I think everyone last year was excited to see the class coming in, and it's been really fantastic to see that sort of 'meshing' of the freshmen and returners.

It's pushed everybody to be better and to improve and to constantly be improving because the selections are different every week. It's a positive competition to have within the squad, and everyone's responded in a positive way. It's been a good challenge for us with a positive result.Mel Denham

"We try to develop everyone into being a leader. This year there's actually more leadership within the team, and I think that's just a product of time."

Freshmen like McKenzie Pusch (pictured), who extended her try-scoring tally to 16 on the season with a six-score performance in the team's final match of the fall, have not only been the beneficiaries of an aggressive style of rugby, but also providers in a team that can pounce on opponents from anywhere on the pitch.

"We have a really good squad and a really deep bench," Denham said. "I feel pretty confident saying we've definitely improved since last year. We're playing a really dynamic style of rugby, and I think we have the talent to really work on the decision-making skills to be able to move the ball around the field a bit, and make decisions and attack based on what's in front of them."

Matchups like that of Central Washington-BYU and Life-Lindenwood have highlighted an impressive season in the highest division of women's college rugby. In the spring, these four teams, as well as Penn State, University of Indiana, University of California, Berkeley, and University of New Mexico, will showcase the sport in the DI Elite competition.

The match against BYU has been the Wildcats' only opportunity to face a DI Elite team thus far, but the coaching staff has been keeping tabs on some of the other programs around the country.

"I watched the Life-Lindenwood game that was streamed [last weekend]," Denham said. "I know Life has a physical forward pack and plays a physical game, which I remember experiencing last year. And Lindenwood has a great program, a great coach. The programs look good, and obviously I'm looking forward to the best competition possible."

While every team wants to win its matchup, Denham is not lost on the overall goal of the collegiate programs: to better American rugby.

"Sometimes I have to stop myself and go, 'This is really awesome,'" the head coach said. "It makes me so happy, being on the national team and being a part of the whole growth over the past decade. It's really incredible. It's pretty incredible to see the programs emerge.

"At the end of the day we're all in it for the same reason, and that's the growth of the game as a whole. I think it's important to maintain those good relationships with coaches, as well, even though the programs are competitive. The growth of the game is the big picture, and that's what I try to stay focused on."