On Thursday, Nov. 29, the Vassar women’s rugby team will pile into a familiar bus to make a familiar pilgrimage down the East Coast to play in the USA Rugby Division II National semifinal, held this year in Charlotte, NC.
In previous years—it will be the program’s fifth Final Four in six years—the bus would have driven through Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, arriving in Greenville, SC, home to the last several Championship semifinals and finals. This year the bus will stop in Charlotte, where the team will rest and practice before taking the field on Saturday, Dec. 1, at 4 p.m. against the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Bears. A win would take the Brewers into the National Final game, to be played the following day at 3 p.m.
For the Vassar squad it will be a familiar bus, a familiar route and a familiar foe. Vassar and the Coast Guard Academy have met in three consecutive postseasons—first in the round of 16, then in the third-place game and last year in the national semifinal. (Vassar won all three matchups.) While this is the fourth consecutive Final Four for the Vassar senior class, the program has yet to capture the ultimate prize: a National Championship crown.
Last year the Brewers coughed up a 29-7 first-half lead over Winona State in the National Championship game and went on to lose a 38-36 heartbreaker. Summarized senior Kaitlin Prado of the team’s quest for the crown, “Every season for the last several years, we have gotten so close to winning the national championships, and in slightly different ways each year we’ve fallen short.”
According to Prado and fellow seniors Makena Emery and Oshana Reich, it is this recent history that drives the team. “We can’t help but be hungry for another shot at the national title,” attested Emery. “Last year we made program history by being the first squad to play in a championship game, so with one last shot, I would say we’re pretty hungry for another chance at that.”
Prado signalled that a Sunday win would put a validating cap on the careers of the seniors, adding, “Winning the championships this year would be a kind of affirmation of the work we’ve been committed to and the growth that we’ve experienced as a team across the years.”
Reich echoed Prado’s thoughts, stating, “To improve on our performance in the Final Four would be an extremely gratifying culmination of the last year of hard work we’ve all put in together.”
While the successes and failures of past teams have shaped the motivations of this squad, this year’s team has had to forge its own identity. Losing a particularly strong crew of graduating seniors in the spring forced the program to incorporate a batch of new faces into the starting lineup. The result? The process has shaped a group identity that Emery described as “fresh and hungry” and bolstered the program in terms of depth and experience.
Reich mentioned this depth as one of the team’s greatest assets. “Most days we can field two full sides, which is really beneficial for running practices and pushing ourselves and each other,” she said. Emery too keyed in on depth, adding, “We truly pride ourselves on being multifaceted rugby players and our ability to slot different players into multiple positions on the field.”
Depth, of course, especially in a sport as physical as rugby, is more necessity than luxury. Injuries have, perhaps predictably, presented one of the biggest challenges to this year’s Brewers. “Unfortunately,” explained Emery, who has battled shoulder problems herself, “we’ve had a decent number [of injuries] this fall, and they have resulted in us making constant changes to our lineup throughout the season.”
Yet those constant lineup changes have not sunk the Brewers this fall, thanks to the squad’s depth. “[Depth] takes a lot of pressure off of injured players,” said Reich. “Our sidelines are overflowing with talented players eager to get some time on the field, so our injured players can focus on recovering.” Emery made the same connection, declaring, “In terms of overcoming [injuries], building depth has allowed us to maintain our focus on just doing the basics well, minimizing mistakes, and executing our plays.”
Indeed, you wouldn’t know Vassar’s dealt with an injury bug by looking at their road to the National Semifinal. In the Round of 16, hosted Nov. 17 in the mud on Vassar’s Farm, Vassar faced another Ursidae school, the University of Maine Black Bears. The game was 17-12 at the intermission, but Vassar pulled ahead in the second half, breezing to a 46-12 win. Reich scored three tries to lead the home team and senior Jennie To added two more.
An Elite Eight matchup the following day followed a different script. After the Brewers raced to a 34-7 lead over the Bryant University Bulldogs, three late tries saw the Rhode Island school tighten things up, though ultimately the Brewers held on for a comfortable 41-24 victory. Prado was the star of the day, scoring three ties.
The all-too-familiar Coast Guard Academy Bears will likely prove to be the toughest adversary the Brewers have faced this postseason. A win would see Vassar take on either last fall’s winners Winona State or the University of Cincinnati in the Championship game. Since these are the same final four teams as last year, the Brewers have a sense of the challenge they face. Said Prado, looking ahead, “We’ve played some of these teams before, and we all know just how hungry the other teams are for these wins. This week is definitely a time when we as a team have to focus in on the kind of mental toughness that will give our team the edge.”
Despite the familiarity of the three other colleges heading to Charlotte, Reich asserted that the team’s preparation and game plan will keep the focus internal. “We are confident that the game of rugby we play can stand up against anything the other teams may throw at us,” said Reich. “Of the many aspects of our game, dominance in set pieces and quick defensive organization will be especially important for us this weekend.”
Prado, too, zeroed in on the importance of what the Brewers themselves can control, specifying, “We have to make our tackles, and we can’t allow any turnovers when we have the ball. In the most basic sense, rugby is a game of possession— good rugby for us will mean starving the other team of the ball.”
For the Vassar women’s rugby team, this weekend brings a familiar bus, a familiar drive and familiar foes. But if the Brewers can play their game, the weekend may just bring an unfamiliar prize.