Physicality marks Central Washington’s narrow win over BYU

PROVO, Utah - Central Washington Women's Rugby continued its unbeaten season when it traveled to Utah Wednesday and upended Brigham Young University, 12-7. The win moves the Wildcats to 10-0 in 15s, while the Cougars showed immense improvement from their October visit to Ellensburg, Wash., when BYU lost, 40-17.

Playing on the road as opposed to home made things tougher on the Wildcats, but the 2015 National Runners-up in both 15s and sevens had also been spending most of 2016 focusing on sevens, and their March 19 warm up against University of British Columbia was canceled. In the other corner, the Cougars had already tallied five 15s matches in 2016, winning each, including a 26-14 victory over Canada's University of Lethbridge.

Suffocating defensive-line integrity and gritty tackling highlighted the first 40 minutes, which produced zero points between the two D1 elite sides. Central Washington is employing a new defensive scheme, but a hard-nose mentality is what really drove the Wildcats' bone-crunching effort on defense.

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"They had big runners and we had big tacklers," said Central Washington center Nate Serevi. "BYU came in hard and contested every ruck hard. Everyone on the team had a role and committed to it. That's what held us together on defense."

All 15 starters and each used reserve were steadfast on that side of the ball for the Wildcats, but a few players were noticeably hungry on defense including center Meagan Curtis and scrum half Emma Leonard, as well as Yana Manoa and Rosa Pena - who both excelled stepping into new positions.

The Cougars took notice of Central Washington's ability to match BYU's physicality.

"Credit to Central Washington - they tackled everything that moved," noted BYU Head Coach Tom Waqa.

In the second half, go-forward ball from the forward pack set up favorable territory for the Wildcats to put pressure on the hosts, and Central Washington was able to capitalize. First, Serevi was able to cleanly scoop up a loose ball, make a few defenders miss, and score the match's opening try. After a successful conversion, the Wildcats led, 7-0.

Knocking on BYU's door again, this time by way of a five-meter lineout, No. 8 Jenny Johnson pulled the ball down from the line and dashed for a glimpse of space, and dotted down to put her team up, 12-0.

Even after struggling to get behind a Cougar defense for the entirety of the first period, Central Washington was rewarded by remaining composed and within its gameplan in the second half.

"We were in our attacking 50 for most of the second period leading up to the tries," said Central Washington Head Coach Mel Denham. "It was a matter of patience as a team, possession of the ball, and taking opportunities when they arose."

BYU, however, refused to go quietly. After finally working the ball deep into Wildcat territory, eight man Sia Skipps was rewarded for her 80-minute effort when she went over the line for a try, and Jessie Beck converted the score in the match's final minutes.

"That is the mindset we are trying to show our players," Waqa said. "We cannot quit, but keep fighting to the end. It was encouraging when the subs got in and we continued to fight to score. That's a win for us."

Outside of Skipps, Jordan Gray continued to show well for the Cougars. The capped Eagle is a natural loose forward and can even lock. Instead, after starring at No. 8 last season, Gray has taken her talents to BYU's midfield playing inside center, where she fills a void on the team and gets plenty of touches.

Outcomes aside, sacrificing time and cost to travel in order to play top-ranked competition is massively important for teams of Central Washington and BYU's caliber.

"Having competitive matches throughout the year is critical to develop the skills necessary to play under pressure in high-level games, and raise the standard of play as a team," explained Denham. "Mentally and physically, the athletes need to adapt and become comfortable in this high-paced, high-intensity environment in order to compete at that level and make good decisions under pressure."

BYU's Waqa took it a step further when he described matches as intensely competitive as this one as "good for women's college rugby."

The mid-week win for Central Washington may not be the last time it faces BYU this season. Both squads will head to the west region's April 22-23 D1 Elite Quarterfinals and Semifinals. If the Wildcats and Cougars get past New Mexico and Stanford, respectively, in the round of eight, the two will play each other for a place in May 7s Women's D1 Elite National Championship Final at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, Calif.