Club Sports: Pitt women’s rugby qualifies for nationals

Jasper Wilson | November 20, 2011    

After completing the season undefeated in the Allegheny Rugby Union for the second consecutive… After completing the season undefeated in the Allegheny Rugby Union for the second consecutive year, the Pitt women’s rugby club team has continued its winning streak into the postseason.

Club sports teams compete with teams from other universities, but their athletes aren’t on athletic scholarships and the teams aren’t governed by the NCAA. Pitt women’s rugby reached the championship game of the Midwest Sweet Sixteen — the playoffs for the Midwest Rugby Football Union — and qualified for nationals in April.The Midwest Rugby Football Union is one of four territorial unions that govern regions of collegiate and amateur rugby in the United States.

Pitt didn’t allow any of its four opponents in the ARU to score more than five points in a single game, but the team still had to win conference playoffs to qualify for the Midwest Sweet Sixteen.

It accomplished its goal. While senior captain Chelsey Mitchell said that any wins from this point on are “pretty much gravy,” team secretary Kirsten Andrews said the team believes it can do more.

“It’s great that we’ve made it this far, but we know we can make it farther and plan on doing so,” she said.

Head coach Anthony Simasek agreed, saying he thought Pitt’s performance at the Midwest Sweet Sixteen proved that the team can compete with the best in the country.

“A trip to the national Final Four is a very realistic goal,” Simasek said.

In the ARU playoffs, Pitt easily dispatched Clarion 48-5, setting up a meeting with rival Slippery Rock.

Andrews said Slippery Rock gave Pitt its toughest game yet, saying “it was the first game where [the team members] were really challenged.” In the end, Pitt prevailed by the close score of 19-12 and advanced to the Midwest playoffs.

There, Pitt defeated No. 8 ranked UW-Lacrosse 27-10 in the Midwest Final Four to secure a place at nationals in the spring. But the game wasn’t as easy as the final score suggests. The top three teams in the Midwest region advance to nationals.

The regulation game-time ended with the score tied 10-10 and required an overtime period that consists of a shortened game of two 10-minute periods.

Pitt had little time to recover before the championship game on Sunday against No. 16 Winona State.

While both Pitt and Winona qualified for nationals by winning in the semifinals, their matchup still had significance as it helped to determine seeding at nationals in the spring.

Pitt lost to Winona 31-10, which gives Pitt the second seed in Midwest region.

Simasek attributed the loss to the all the energy and effort the team put into Saturday’s game with a spot at nationals on the line.

“It’s tough to maintain that same level [of energy] just 24 hours later,” he said.

In preparation for nationals, the team will take December off and begin a winter workout program once classes resume in January.

The workout program is crucial, Simasek said. After seeing his team compete against higher-level opponents, he said it’s clear that the players need to get stronger and faster before nationals.

In addition to the workouts, the team will practice two to three times a week at the Cost Center until the end of February when the practices can move outside.

Pitt will play in three tournaments to help prepare for nationals.

“We see more D-I teams in these tournaments, so it’s definitely better competition than what we’ll see at nationals,” Mitchell said.

Student Government Board member Alex Zimmerman said that qualifying for nationals will aid the team financially.

“[For the Midwest Final Four], we funded $1,426.74 and denied $3,689.40,” Zimmerman said. “Because Panther Women’s Rugby was already close to the $5,000 competition cap, we chose to approve Allocation’s recommendation to only fund for lodging … If they qualify to compete in nationals, the $5,000 competition cap does not apply.”

This season, Pitt also received its first national ranking in program history. Pitt entered the Women’s Division II College Top 25 the weekend of Oct. 23, ranked No. 12. In a poll that came out two weekends ago, Pitt moved up two spots to No. 10.

Mitchell noted the club team’s improvement since her freshman season.

“We used to struggle to get coaches,” Mitchell said. “Now we have three coaches [who are volunteers] at every practice.”

With 50 players this season, the team had enough people to field A and a B sides, a benefit not possible in the past, Mitchell said.

Simasek also noted the development of the team.

“I came on about two and a half years ago — so three fall seasons — and we had 20 to 25 girls,” he said. “Now we have 50 to 55. We had never won a league championship or been to Midwest Sweet Sixteens [before then].”

When asked what he thought has contributed to the program reaching such a high level so quickly, Simasek quickly credited the players.

“I think that it can 100 percent be attributed to the work ethic the girls have decided to take on,” he said.

And once the first girls decided to put the work in, other students noticed, Simasek said.

“Other athletes see that [success] and naturally want to be a part of it,” he added.

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