Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Making Lemonade - Ruggerfest 2009 with MARFU U23 Dev

As most readers probably know, i coach the MidAtlantic U23s. We've got about a zillion players in our territory, from traditional powerhouses like Penn State, UVA, and Navy, all the way to DIII collegiate.

Since there's such a range, we work very hard to ensure that we do events that specifically target the NON powerhouse team. Every D2 or D3 club out there has at least one natural athlete waiting to be discovered. Its the discovery process that is so time consuming and so hard.

The primary venue is the LAU Round Robin. With the U19 program moving to U20, its an opportunity not only to assess U23 players, but U20 players as well.

The Round Robin happens at the very end of the fall season, and I get a team of selectors to watch players in position groups on specific team. From there, we invite about 40 players to the Capitol City Ruggerfest, hosted by the DC Furies. 40 sounds like alot of players, but Ruggerfest falls right between Collegiate Round of 16, and the Championships aka final 4. This year two D1 MARFU Teams (PSU and Navy) and two D2 MARFU teams (UDel and Shippensburg) are going to final 4, and we generally know that because of that, at least half the players we invite will decline. Which is again, OK - it just opens up doors for other players. Basiclly the rule is "if in doubt, invite".

We try not to "stack" this team, and use the NASC vets primarily in leadership positions and to provide program continuity. In the 2009 tournament we had only two NASC vets - all the rest were first timers in a MARFU jersey. Only one player is aging out after this year, and most of the players were 19 or 20. We had about 4 21-22 year olds, and a 17 year old high school player. A 17 year old 8, 19 year old 9, and 19 year old 10 is indeed a young team.

Well this year, in addition to the normal players going to nationals declinations, school conflicts, last minute game conflicts etc, we had 6 injuries less than a week before the event. So the coaching staff and myself had to make a decision. Should we/could we really go down there with 12 players? Three more were coming Sunday, so what we ultimately decided to do was loosen our requirements this year.

Normally we tell college players who's teams are in the tournament that they must make a full commitment to the MARFU team - no cross rostering, except for the occasional senior looking to get one final 1/2 with her team before graduation. My view is that if you want to play and train at a high pace, you can't overdue it. I know the young players have huge energy reserves, but its very hot and we try to create an environment that makes the players feel special and encourages peak performance.

This year we had no choice - torn patella tendons, dislocated shoulder, sprained ankle AND knee, a broken arm, and a concussion just aren;t things you can predict. So we reached out to all the coaches in the territory first for last minute recommendations, and then contacted all the college coaches with teams in the tournament. The same eligibility rules applied, players must be U23 eligible members of MARFU, and this year we would allow cross rostering.

So miraculously, thanks in no small part to American University, George Washington, Temple, and Norfolk, we filled the hooker/flanker/wing vacancies we had and on Sunday actually had a couple of subs.

Things looked pretty bleak at first. We got together friday evening in DC, at a patch of grass on Catholic University, just to work out our communication system, get to know each other, and just do some loose play. At first the players were very quiet, and you could literally hear a pin drop when I told them we had 12 players. But, as the session went on, everyone loosened up. We were very fortunate to have Eamonn Hogan, who I previously blogged about, join us for the tourney, and he did a 40 minute contact skills session for the girls on Friday, and stuck around to watch them play on Saturday.

Slowly confidence began to shift. Every single one of the core group was a good athlete and a good rugby player - they just needed to believe it. As long as our pickups could hold their own, we would be OK.

American University sent us three players, right off their game, and they fit like a glove. I don't know how much rugby those three played that weekend, but they probably deserve a full week off. So off we were to our first match, at 8:30 AM, against Chesaoeake, an upwardly moving but relatively new DII club in MARFU. The only prep we had done for scrums or lineouts happened in the pre-game warmup. Bottom line, when putting together a team like this, you can;t cover everythihg. We mde sure the scrums would be safe and we had some lineout options, and off to kickoff we went.

Chesapeake really kicked our ass in the scrums, but our fitness and speed shined through. Our forwards did a great job enploying the tools Eamonn taught, although we did pay the price with penalties when we didn't execute fast enough. Lineouts were so so and continuity wasn;t great, but we came away with a W (10-0) and a clear picture of what we needed to work on.

At these types of events, we don't do the traditional warmup, except prior to the very first game. Instead, we have the captain take the team through some dynamic stretching, and then we introduce a new tool. So prior to game II, we decided we needed to really straighten out how we used the forwards on attack, and how we were going to realign on defense, and how we were going to deal with penalties.

So we introduced the pick and charge and the power up, and then we played a defensive realignment game where the coach randomly awards penalties, just to introduce the idea of moving away from the old school "give it to a forward and crash" method of attack to the two passes away from contact method.

After that it was time for game II, against the Maryland Stingers, a women's D1 club. It was obvious the players confidence ws growing, but we struggled to maintain focus and discipline for the length of the game. Our scrums were much improved, but our lineouts still left alot to be desired. It was pretty typical - moments of brilliance, moments of disaster. Lucky for us, we had more moments of brilliance and few moments of disaster, but the outcome of the game could have gone anyway until right at the end. Final score MARFU 27, Stingers 14.

It was getting really, really hot, so prior to our last game, against the Furies B, we decided to stay in the shade until the last possible minute, and just do 10 minutes of dynamic stretching and a 5 minute team run. This was the game where EVERYTHING clicked. The team was clearly borderline exhausted when they got on the field, so Roshna and I did our very best to channel our excitement into their brains and hearts. And we scored on the first kickoff, and never stopped. there was continuity, lateral and vertical support, line breaks all over, dominated in scrums, went about 50/50 in lineouts, and just played great rugby until the final whistle. Final score, 63-0. Many of these players in D2 or D3 programs have only every been on the receiving end of a game like that, so going 3-0, finishing the game with such great continuity, really had everyone feeling positive. It was during that game that those players became a team.

After giving every one the hydrate, icebath, sunscreen, eat speach, the players and staff dissapated. We watched Amercan University and our cross rostered players play yet another game, and watched some of the Temple U game. And then it was time for hotel, shower, and AC.

We had a team dinner at noodles and company in Alexandria (great place for a team dinner FYI), and handed out an award to the player who did the most to "spark" the team. I'm not a huge fan of MVP awards, as they usually wind uo going to the person who scores all the tries, although there are appropriate times for them. This award was more about providing inspiration - and it went to Hannah Bennett, our 19 year old scrumhalf from Drexel University, who all game just kept hammering, She realy lit up the field in the third game, and quite dramatically dived completely over the top of a ruck at the try line, ball in hand, to score. Congrats Hannah!

Everyone dispersed for the evening and got some much needed sleep.

The next morning - us VS Back in Black. Normally that spells doom for not-Back in Black, but I believed these girls had it them to upset the forever champions, and if not that, keep it close.

For warmups we introduced a couple of more things - the notion that you actually start rucking BEFORE the player hits the ground, as well as introducing a hinge run but the forwards to allow more options for the 10. Practice went well and spirits were high. Players were super excited to hear that one of our players, Tanya, would actually be playing against her Mom. I recall being asked why one of the Black in Black players had "63" on their back, and explained that most of the team actually wears the year they were born on their back. So it was definitely the youngest team in the tourney, vs the oldest. This was the 4th consecutive year we've met BinB in either the semis or finals, and we coaches knew what to expect. Fast, smart, and alot of tactical quiking.

We did great for the first 30 minutes, and while BinB had most of the possession, we played great defense and they were forced to play going backwards. We traded tries, and BinB went ahead by one try and a penalty kick just before the half.

It sill looked doable, and we had fresh legs (or as fresh as they can be after 3 Saturday games). We put our fresh legs in, but alas, Back in Black had broken our code. We just couldn't react as fast as they could, nor could we pass as long as they could. As a result they were able to isolate our outside backs, and they literally gave us a lesson in how quick tap penalties AND line outs should be done. Final score saw them up 3 tries and a PK on us, for a final score of 37-14.

As a final act, we awarded the "Spark" award for the Back in Black game to SMBC's Laura Miller. She made head on tackles, side tackles, from behind tackles, and was essentially a tackling machine. Congrats Laura!

While it would have been nice to have the upset of the century and play in the final, I think more was learned by playing hard and loosing to a team of this caliber. Beacuse these players represented 11 different schools I think we can assume that where this team struggled, many players at this level will struggle, and we'll be able to sort out some of those issues at the Evasive running, playmaking, and support workshop at American University on May 10th, and at the Selection and Training Camp May 23-24 at the University of Maryland.

Anyway,it was a great weekend and I have high hopes for tryouts. I know that the players who participated will be better prepared, we have gobs of information regarding where we're at and what we need to work on, and all the players will be with us for several years.

Additional information on the MARfU U-23 Program can be found on my sister blog, http://marfu-u23s.blogspot.com, or on our facbook page at http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=29161390168

The Ruggerfest MARFU U23 Developmental Roster is reprinted below.

Hannah Bennet - Drexel (scrumhalf) - 89 SPARK WINNER FOR SATURDAY
Elaine Bigelow - Princeton (back row)- 88
Loretta Charles- George Washington (back row) - 87
Rebecca DeMoor - Philly Women - 86
Mia Escobar - 87- Drexel (front row) - 87
Tanya Gouws - University of Maryland (center) - 88
Liz Hilliard - American (front row) - 89
Katie Hunt - Temple - (back row) - 87
Ugochi Madubata - Princeton (lock, back row) - 87
Danielle Monica - Temple (wing) - 87 MARFU 2008 NASC VET
Shantel Nelson - American (wing) - 89
Trish Nowlan - George Washington (front row) - 89
Kate Rada - Westchester (flyhalf) - 89
Kaitlyn Rooney- American -(back row) - 89
Nicki Scheurch - Temple (fullback, wing) - 87
Moira Somerdyk - Temple (center) -88 CAPTAIN and MARFU NASC 2008 VET
Hannah Strayer - West Shore United High School (bacck row)- 91
Molly Walter - Mary Washington( front row) - 88
Angela Yue - Princeton (wing) - 89

Special thanks to American University and George Washington University for allowing their players to participate at very short notice, to Eamonn Hogan for the great session on Friday night, to Emily Sabato, our manager, and to Roshna Wunderlich, my fabulous assistant coach.