Stanford growing confident ahead of friendly versus Life West

LAFAYETTE, Colo. - The Stanford Women's Rugby program has seen plenty of turnover since its 2014 Division I National Championship Final against Penn State. Of the 23 players who fell to the Nittany Lions on that day, only five are still with the program. Furthermore, the team has welcomed a new head coach and director of rugby in Josh Sutcliffe.

After five years of overseeing all things rugby on "The Farm," former Men's Eagle Matt Sherman left the Pacific Ocean coastline for the Atlantic when he took over the head coaching position of the West Point Men's Rugby team. His replacement, although not new to Stanford after a tenure from 2005-08 as a Cardinal assistant, has needed some time to acclimate himself with the roster.

"I think the biggest challenge was getting to know the landscape again, and getting to know the players," Sutcliffe, former USA Rugby coach development director, said. "Any time you walk into a new group you've got to learn all of their personalities, learn how they work together, and learn their strengths and weaknesses."

Slowing the acclimation process was Sutcliffe's September arrival - a week after classes at Stanford began. On top of that, the majority of returning players immediately began working at new positions on the pitch.

Further difficulties arose - some coaches are used to, such as injuries. Others, like a change in class schedule that made it difficult for players to get to the training paddock on time, have thrown the new director of rugby a curveball.

The combination of a rash of injuries, players suiting up in unfamiliar positions and installing a new structure of play led to some mixed results to open 2016. Losses to UC Davis and Chico State were learning experiences. When the Cardinal took the pitch against Davis just three weeks after its 19-point loss, it earned the result it was looking for - a 19-12 victory.

"I think this team is getting a lot better as the season progresses," Sutcliffe unequivocally said. "We had to build trust amongst one another as players moved into different roles. As the season has gone on the trust has grown, and everyone is starting to play more instinctively."

A growing confidence amongst teammates has Stanford playing much better rugby, but the standout play of a few individuals has also helped. Just a sophomore, Olivia Bernadel-Huey is captaining the side, and her awareness as a playmaker continues to improve at both half back positions. Bernadel-Huey's most reliable target has been inside center Madda Wilson. The junior from Australia has the vision required of a midfield back to make her very dangerous.

In the forwards, Avery Youngblood has joined the club after spending a few years on Stanford's fencing team. Playing flanker, Youngblood is still picking up the game - but at an impressive pace. Holding the pack together is utility forward Fiona Meyer-Teruel. The senior Mechanical Engineering major has battled several injuries, but worked hard to get back on the pitch and can plug any hole from positions one through eight.

The Cardinal's next opportunity to prove its growth as a team comes Saturday, April 2, at home against senior club Life West. In just its second year of existence, the Gladiatrix have taken the Northern California DII competition by storm. Life West is undefeated at 7-0, and has won each of its seven contests by an average of 65 points. Most recently, it took apart 2015 DII National Runners-up Sacramento Amazons, 86-0.

"We're very realistic about the challenge we face there," said Sutcliffe. "So, we set our goals and performance expectations around the things we can control, like how we make our tackles."

Recently infiltrated with 2015 Collegiate All-Americans like Catherine Benson (Penn State), Megan Foster (Chico State), and Megan Pinson (Central Washington), Life West is a team on the rise, and poses a matchup from which Stanford can take lessons.

"It's one of those games you put on the calendar for a reason, and that's to see where we're at," Sutcliffe added. "Then we'll have a couple of weeks to reload and head up to Central Washington."

The trip to the Pacific Northwest Sutcliffe is referring to is the April 22-23 western Quarterfinals and Semifinals of the inaugural Women's D1 Elite competition. In the round of eight, the Cardinal will be up against Brigham Young University. Should it get past the Cougars, it would then face the winner between Central Washington and New Mexico the following day.

"I'm pretty excited for the rest of the season," admitted Sutcliffe. "Hopefully we come out of this weekend with more confidence, and we'll be able to springboard that onto our match against BYU and we'll see what happens after that."