Women's rugby plays split spring season, seeks future growth

| 4/10/16 6:51pm
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In the past year, the Dartmouth women’s rugby program has been host to many changes. Not only is it now a fully recognized varsity sport, but it is also one of the few programs in NCAA women’s rugby to be fielding teams of both sevens and the more traditional fifteens.

“We’re one of the only teams [that does this],” Ashley Zepeda ’18 said. “But at the same time, it’s useful because we’re trying to develop the team.”

Indeed, playing both sevens and fifteens allows many more players to get game time. The fall season is traditionally reserved for fifteens, when 15 players take the field at one time with eight substitutes. The spring season features more games of sevens, when the team sends 12 with seven starting on the field in shorter games.

“Playing sevens puts your individual skills under the microscope, since there are fewer players,” head coach Katie Dowty said. “Everyone needs to be able to catch a pass, and there’s nowhere to hide. It allows for development for fifteens as well.”

On a team of 34, many of the athletes do not get a chance to take the field all season, especially in the spring. With both seasons, Dowty said that the overall increased playing time has been a huge benefit to the team, something that would not be possible with just sevens.

By giving more athletes the chance to play, this system has proved essential towards developing walk-on players to get them from not knowing the sport at all to being able to play at the varsity level. In the transition from a club team to a varsity team, many of the players had never played rugby before walking on. Zepeda said it takes time to adopt the mentality of being a varsity athlete.

The expanded playing time has also improved the coaching staff’s focus on other players on the team, not just the ones who travel.

“Last season, when we were still a club team, and our coach then coached the A-side and then the assistant coach coached the B-side, I sometimes felt like we had no attention from the head coach,” Zepeda said. “This season, our coach has been really good about [focusing on different players] and at no point do you feel like there are some who aren’t focused on.”

Benefits aside, the switch to playing both sevens and fifteens has its difficulties. For one, the playing styles in sevens and fifteens are slightly different. The two require different mindsets, co-captain Kerry Conlin ’16 said, and strategies change as the team has different offensive and defensive priorities. With fewer players on the field and less time on the clock in sevens, Conlin explained that play has to be more fluid while possession time becomes more important. In contrast, fifteens play requires more intricacy and set pieces remain more influential.

So far in the spring season, the team has only played sevens. They have largely resorted to fielding a team of more experienced athletes, a decision largely made by focusing on what best meets the players’ needs.

“It depends on where our focus is as a team and with positional development, so sometimes it might be more useful for a player to stay back,” Dowty said.

However, the vast differences between the two games can make effectively switching between the two difficult. On tour in California, the team played only fifteens. As soon as they got back to Hanover, players had to switch immediately into the mindset of sevens.

“Having that mental shift and strategy is tough,” Zepeda said. “So we struggled in the beginning, but now that we’re back in it.”

Indeed, dividing the team ostensibly into two separate teams could also lead to a split in the overall group. The team was aware that the coaching staff would be experimenting with this new model this season.

“It’s definitely one of our biggest challenges.” Zepeda said. “It can divide the team. But we’re very vocal about it, and we communicate about it.”

Playing two different sets of games forces the team to sometimes split on the weekends, when one or both groups will be traveling to tournaments. Despite the different schedules, the teams stay in touch.

On a whole, the athletes think that this change has been beneficial.

“I think everyone understands that planning our season like this ultimately benefits everyone, because players get more minutes, and there is more room for people to step into leadership roles,” Conlin said. “So far I have been very impressed with the team’s attitude — we all look out for each other, and that hasn’t changed.”

Being able to manage the two squads has not been difficult for the coaching staff. Conlin said that the staff is split between the fifteens and the sevens, and the training staff remains available for both competitions. At practices, all the players will work out and do general drills together before splitting up by position.

Playing both sevens and fifteens can sometimes strain the roster when injuries arise. Despite the injuries, the team has benefitted from versatility. With two injured players last week, freshmen stepped in to fill the gap. Zepeda said that the team played just as well, adding the group was adjusting well and remained resilient.

It is this versatility that has made the team successful thus far in making this unique system work. How this affects the program’s future, however, remains to be seen.

“I think it’ll show next fall,” Zepeda said. “All of these other teams will get really good at sevens, but we’ll have a whole season where we worked on fifteens, and it’ll make our roster have a lot more depth in the fall.”

Like Zepeda, Dowty is also eyeing the future advantages.

“The whole point is that we see a big competitive advantage in building depth and fielding a whole second side,” Dowty said. “It’s a very obvious trend that the most successful programs have two or three squads that are always playing and developing.”