Busy schedule, character development has Lindenwood thinking big

LAFAYETTE, Colo. - The Lindenwood University's women's rugby team has accomplished so much on the pitch that it is easy to forget the program has only been around for five years. The youthfulness of the program and the two-year tenure of its head coach, Billy Nicholas, allows for plenty of room for growth and development based on lessons learned from the previous year's campaign.

This year the Lions expect to take strides thanks to a beefed-up schedule and a new mental strength training regimen.

"Our schedule was all about getting out there and playing the best of the best, and having one of the most competitive schedules in the nation," said Nicholas. "That's the only way our players are going to continue to grow."

Lindenwood's first XV has yet to get its first run-out against an opposing team, but its second side has already notched wins against senior club squads St. Louis Sabers and Little Rock Stormers by a combined score of 76-21. The two fixtures not only gave players an opportunity to raise their hands for first-team selection, but a taste of the physicality to be expected of their opposition down the road.

"It was a great two weeks and two matches for us in a development aspect," Nicholas noted. "We have pretty good relationships with the Sabers and Little Rock programs, so for them to come down and help us out and evaluate the depth of our roster was definitely a positive."

The first chance to evaluate Lindenwood's top side comes this weekend. Forty players will take a bus to Norman, Okla., where the Lions development side will take on the University of Oklahoma Friday, Sept. 23, and the first-23 will battle University of New Mexico the very next day.

The players are excited to return to the pitch, and the coaching staff is even more eager to evaluate them. However, the team views this weekend only as a starting off point. When Lindenwood returns to St. Charles, Mo., from its two-match trip to Oklahoma, it will have six matches over eight weeks against some of the best teams in the country.

The decorated teams remaining on Lindenwood's pre-Thanksgiving schedule include 2015 Women's Division II Club Champion Wisconsin Women's Rugby, Stars Rugby Selects, 2016 College 7s National Champion Life University, reigning College 15s National Champion Penn State, and a trip to northern California to face Stanford and 2016 DI Spring Champion UC Davis.

"They're excited," said Nicholas of the slate of matches. "I don't think there is any nervousness behind it or any expectations they feel they need to live up to. I think they are looking at the schedule and are genuinely excited to get out and play some of the best teams. That's one of the reasons why we have student-athletes come to this university is to play the best. We need to continue to deliver that as a coaching staff; these high-level experiences."

Excitement aside, there is a lot of rugby to be played against quality opposition. Fortunately for Nicholas and his staff, experienced and skilled players from last year return to the fold and are joined by some impressive reinforcements.

Richelle Stephens, who put off enrollment at Lindenwood last year in order to train with the Women's Eagles Sevens team at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., is now on campus after helping Team USA to a fifth-place finish at August's Olympic Games. Aiding the fly half's transition to college life and grasp of the Lions' offensive patterns is scrum half AnnaKaren Pedraza, a fellow southern California native who was outstanding at the base of the ruck last season and should keep defenses on their heels alongside Stephens.

The addition of Stephens has also allowed 2016 All-American McKenzie Hawkins to move to her natural position. Last season Hawkins did a superb job running the offense from the fly half position, but should be even more dangerous this season wearing the No. 12 jumper - the jersey Nicholas thinks she could wear while suiting for the Eagles in the future.

Outside of Hawkins are a couple of equally dangerous ball-runners in Hannah Gauthreaux and Davon Thomas. Gauthreaux, an All-American who won a National Championship with Notre Dame College before transferring to Lindenwood prior to last season, can beat defenses through her hands or feet. Thomas, meanwhile, was the Lions' breakout star during the team's fun to the Cup Final of the 2016 USA Rugby College 7s National Championships, and competed with the AIG Women's Collegiate All-American Sevens team last month.

Lindenwood lost the 2016 College 7s National Championship to Life University in Cary, N.C.

Although Lindenwood's strength might reside in the back line, the Lions have game-changers in the forward pack, too. Most prominent amongst the unit will be Laura Enk. The tight head prop had a massive 2015-16 season after transferring from Ferris State. Enk's power and precision will be even more crucial this year due to the graduation of loose head prop Morgan Crowell.

Outside of Stephens, Natalie Kosko is a notable transfer student. The three-time All-American while at Quinnipiac University has recovered from surgery that repaired a torn ACL, and will give the team yet another line-breaking option when she returns to rugby activities ahead of Lindenwood's Oct. 9 contest against Stars Rugby Selects, and will soften the blow of losing recently graduated Amanda Divich.

In all, Lindenwood expects to roll out eight new players to the team's first-23 against New Mexico on Saturday. The turnover does not worry the coaching staff, but rather excites them as they feel there is a lot of room for improvement amongst the group. The new combinations almost excite the Lions coaches as much as its innovative emphasis on mental strength training.

The team has put a lot of resources into a program it has been labeled the Character Development First model.

"We're having sessions each week to put the girls in certain situations where their character and their performance skills are being developed," explained Nicholas. "Hopefully that will translate over on the field during these high pressure games."

The upgraded mental strength training should help the team reemerge from a taxing fall schedule in order to get back to work for a spring semester that includes a meeting against 2016 D1 Elite Finalist BYU, a second contest against Life, a friendly against Women's Premier League's Glendale Raptors, and a spring break tour to Ireland for a handful of matches against provincial sides.

A fall schedule chock-full of challenges and the newly developed Character Development First model have the Lions eager to lace up the boots every opportunity they get.

"In general, there is just a high level of energy and everybody is excited to get to work with one another," Nicholas concluded.