by Euni Dixon
Wayne State College Women's Rugby Club marched to the NSCRO Small College National Championship title but the journey was not played out only on the rugby pitch. For most of the players this was a first time visit to the east coast so the trip was more than just rugby as the side made the ‘23-Hour Drive to be #1 in the NSCRO Rugby Nation.’
On Wednesday, November 14 at 2pm, the Wayne State College of Nebraska Wildcats, Women’s Rugby Club along with supporters and family members, loaded a charter bus to begin a 1350 mile journey to New Jersey.
The team is made up of many Nebraskan “farm girls” who like to brag about being “corn fed” had a large dinner at noon. In Nebraska, the noon meal is dinner and the evening meal is supper. With styrofoam coolers packed full of sandwiches, cookies, chips, apples and bananas, the entourage would not be wanting for food.
At the first rest stop, as the ruggers walk with their Black and Gold Wayne State coats, many people think the team is from Wayne State University in Wayne, Michigan with a 21,000 student enrollment. After some smiles and a short chat, the ruggers let the others know that WSC is for Wayne State College from Wayne, Nebraska with a female enrollment of about 1,400 students.
DVD movies about “underdogs” are shown. They include “Hoosiers”, “Invictus”, with the closing movie “Miracle”, about the 1980 USA hockey team defeating Russia in the semifinal en route to win the Olympic gold medal. The team, known affectionately as the CATS, are motivated as the bus rolls on the down the road to New Jersey.
Sightseeing? Not likely part of this first 23 hours on the bus. At 11PM nearby Chicago passes by, then Cleveland at 4am, and Pittsburgh at 7am. The bus is not making any sightseeing stops as the team has a late afternoon practice planned. The bus did make 2 stops for a “new” driver pickup but that was it. On Thursday breakfast is apples, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches out of the cooler. As we approached Philadelphia, the DVD fired up “Rocky”….what else? When we get to Philly, head coach and club founder Darrin Barner, meets the team as he arrived “by air”.
Arrival in downtown Philly takes the Wildcats to the Italian area of town, and for a late “dinner” at 1:30, they arrive at Pat’s “King of Steaks” home of the very first Philly Cheesesteak in 1930. With only a few hours to spare before a critical practice, the ruggers load the bus and move onto their next stop – the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall and get a sense of how this country began. With the “Rocky” movie in the back of their minds, the Wayne State College team goes to a surprise stop as the bus drops the team off at the famous “Rocky Steps” - the 72 steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the statue of Rocky Balboa.
A “pre-practice stretch” has the ruggers running up the steps, and overlooking the skyline of Philadelphia. The ruggers are in awe as their home town of Wayne, Nebraska is only 13 blocks long with many of the players from high schools that only have 15 or so students per grade. Athletics is key in small town Nebraska, with many students from schools that play 6 or 8-man football. Some of the schools may have just 11 to 14 boys on their entire football team for grades 9-12. The scene on top of the “Rocky Steps” was nothing short of a Hollywood moment. The ruggers embraced the view as the sunset glowed over Philly. It is now time to load the bus for a 30 minute drive to New Jersey for a long hard practice at Cherry Hill.
After the Thursday night practice (under the lights) the bus took the ruggers to their motel and head coach Barner made prior arrangements for “Real Italian” food from a nearby restaurant. When the restaurant’s owner learned about the non-funded club, he generously gave the team the meal at half price. To put this meal in perspective, for many of the players, the closest thing to “real Italian” food is microwaved Spaghettio’s. Time to go to bed as a 4:45am as a wakeup call to load the bus awaited the tired ruggers full of the finest Italian food they have ever eaten.
After a short 5 ½ hour sleep, the rugby team “zombie walks” to the bus. It departs to the Nation’s Capitol in Washington DC. In just a relatively short bus ride of only 2 ½ hours, the ruggers find themselves in front of the White House. Additional stops are made at the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, and a very quiet patriotic walk past the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials.
As the players load the bus to go to the “Changing of the Guard” at Arlington National Cemetery, plans are changed. The team’s “patron”, Rod Tompkins, has arranged for U.S. Congressmen Jeff Fortenberry and Adrian Smith of Nebraska to greet the team at the steps of the Capitol Building and provide a tour and also allow the team to observe a voting session of the House of Representatives.
As 2:30pm arrives the ruggers load for what they think is a 2 ½ hour drive back to New Jersey, and with many of the players from towns with no traffic lights, the gridlock of 6 lane freeways, now has the ruggers on a 5 ½ hour trip. Supper is going to half to wait; it’s time for a 7pm practice that is a quick stretch and walk through before Saturday’s semi-final match with unbeaten Wheaton College. At the end of practice, Coach Barner has the team line up at the try-line holding hands and as coach Barner runs backwards, he has the team run with him holding hands. Barner acts like a “play by play announcer as he calls out players names in a fictitious game of passes, loops, scissors, switches, rucks and driving mauls as the CATS move the ball numerous times down the field for to score try after try.
The teams arrive at the field at 10am for their noon kickoff, and little do they know a special guest will hop on a bus for a motivational speech. Coach Barner made contact with Beasley Reece, who is a CBS-TV sports anchor in Philadelphia, for a guest appearance. Due to a bit of an age gap, many of the WSC players do not know that Beasley Reece was one of the best defensive backs in the NFL in the late 70s and 80s.
Coach Barner was as a former defensive back for Wayne State football in the mid-80s. He met Beasley at a 4-day football camp 28 years ago. Reece remembered his visit to Wayne State, and even brought back some photos of him and Coach Barner from the camp. Beasley hopped on the bus, and gave a monumental 12 minute speech that was nothing short of what he told Barner 28 years ago. Quotes of “Find A Way To Win”, “Drive To Get In Stride With”, “Take A Picture Of Today, It Will Last You The Rest Of Your Life.” The ruggers were in awe of his speech and the ‘fuel’ he gave them with only 90 minutes before kickoff was bound to help. Motivation is a key for a game that can lead to the national title.
The Cats took the field and the match began in a way that was not comforting to any of the reserves or coaching staff. The team was simply nervous going into the game, and did not have the best final 15 minutes of warm ups. This uneasiness showed as they could not maintain much continuity and were down at halftime by 4 points, 14-10.
Barner calmed the team down with Beasley Reece’s quote “drive to get in stride with”. The Wildcats were behind, but not far behind. With determination the Wildcats found their “drive to get in stride with” and as the second half wore on the Wildcats used their momentum and determination to take the lead 15-14. Like any hard race or fight, if your opponent sees you rest and ‘drop your gloves’ they will take advantage. This is what happened and the Wheaton flyhalf broke through 4 tackles to score under the post and with the easy conversion they took the lead at 21-15. WSC countered and scored with a try and then a penalty kick with 7 minutes left to retake the lead 23-21. The final minutes of the game should great offensive moves by Wheaton and a staunch defense when needed by the Cats.
Wheaton moved the ball 45 meters down the field seemingly with ease and was close to the Wayne State goal line with ball in hand. A “4 yards and a cloud of dust” forward play by Wheaton was stopped 5 meters out. On the game’s final play the ball was swung wide to the left side but the Wheaton center was stood up – stopped cold – just “6 inches” from the goal line. The ball became unplayable and the referee awarded a scrum. However time had expired and the scrum never happened as the final whistle blew. Final score - 23-21 Wayne State - in the one of the most exciting games of college rugby that many have ever witnessed. A game that was determined by only 6 inches by two very evenly matched teams.
As the team was warming up for the national championship match, Coach Barner was more at ease. The team was executing much better in warm ups. Just before kickoff, Barner ‘took the team’ back to Thursday night practice session when he had in total darkness holding hands and staring at the try line for 2 minutes without taking their eyes off the line.
Thursday night’s closing quote was “If you want to win the national championship, they can never cross this line”. The theory of offense wins games, and defense wins championships fell into place as a very aggressive defensive effort from the Wildcats kept the Roger Williams University’s fast and explosive backs running sideways with no gaps or channels to shoot through. With the ball in hand, the Wayne State forwards drove hard ruck after ruck and the backs powered their way through the defense. When the final whistle sounded….it was Wayne State 32 – Roger Williams 0. The “23-Hour Drive to Be No. 1” was transformed from a dream into reality. The joy and jubilation was a thrill to see. The players, coaches, parents and fans….all together sharing this splendid moment.
Now was the next challenge…as the return bus ride of 23 hours awaited the tired squad of Wayne State College of Nebraska. After a parting trip past Philadelphia, the home of the underdog “Rocky” who worked hard for the title, the national champs began to reflect on their dream from just 3 days ago, when they climbed those famous steps and believed they could hoist the national championship trophy over their heads. The national championship trophy was on its 23 hour journey to Wayne, Nebraska.
The rugby bus reaches Wayne by late afternoon. To the surprise of the ruggers, the bus is pulled over right at the entrance to the town. As the ruggers were eager to get off the bus, 4 fire-trucks are there to load them for a parade up Main Street. The street is lined with fans from the town and local businesses. The trucks drive onto campus where over 1000 students greeted the team with the college band playing the school fight song. The women ruggers let it all out as their tears roll down their cheeks.
The teams was also greeted by 2 TV stations and 3 newspapers who are there to report about the “Rocky” of small college rugby from the cornfields of Nebraska.
Rocky faced a rematch. Will the Wildcat girls be able to return to the national championship final four next year for their “rematch”? To do so, the Wildcats will have to fight their way out of the Great Plains conference with other teams from Nebraska as well as South Dakota. If they can, then it is onto the NSCRO regional championship against one of the hard core colleges from Iowa, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Kansas or Minnesota. In 2011, Wayne was very close to going to the national semi-final only to be nipped out by the Minnesota Union Champion, Carleton College. With the majority of the Top 10 in NSCRO women’s college rugby polls being from the East Coast area, it is not an easy task to bring home the grand prize again. Many colleges, who wind up in their own league as a 3rd or 4th place team, are simply just a score or two away from making the playoffs in this very competitive playoff format.
However, if these same teams meet again in the Final 4 next year……..buy your ringside seats early, it will for sure go the distance in an very evenly match title fight that could be won or lost on just 6 inches in the closing seconds. NSCRO’s path is a long road to the championship with many great teams to face along the way if you want to win the national title.
Congratulations Wildcats on a most success Great American Rugby Road Trip!!
With thanks to Euni Dixon and Stephen Cohen president of the National Small College Rugby Organization for forwarding this article. Please send your rugby related articles to Rugby Rugby by CLICKING HERE.
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