By I.A. Stewart & Patricia Sanchez
They say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The women’s rugby team, the reigning DII national champions, certainly don’t need any fixing, but that hasn’t stopped the team from doing some retooling going into this season’s title defense.
"They always practiced hard and took the games seriously," Head of Club Sports Skippy Givens said, "but it was still kind of a Santa Cruz approach to sports. Now, as the national champions, they are bringing a work ethic never seen before at this school."
Last year’s championship seems to have energized this year’s squad, as the team has fielded a roster of over 30-enough for an A team and a B team-for the first time in the team’s history, and spawned a vigor and passion for training that teams past may have been missing.
"[Winning the championship] has definitely changed my outlook," coach Alex McKenzie said. "I’m more concerned that [the team] not get complacent. It’s not like we went out last year and were super [focused]. We just sort of happened to do well. I don’t want the expectation to be that they are going to automatically waltz right into the championship again."
The team has added an assistant coach to aid McKenzie this year. Brett Amos, a UCSC alumni and former rugger who had been working with the men’s side in recent years, will serve as a backs coach for the women’s team.
"Now we’ve got two experts [directing] equally important positions," Mashawna Miller, one of a small core group of returning players on the team, said.
The team will have to replace last year’s star player, Heather Beswick, who is now playing on the National under-23 team, the Pelicans. Stepping into her place at the "eight" position, a hybrid between a back and forward, will be senior Amara Reddick. Meagan Healy, who steps into the captaincy this year, and Lynne Freeman also figure to be important pieces.
"We lost some good leaders," Amos said. "Players who weren’t in those positions last year are stepping up and taking on that role."
For Amos, the transition from the men’s team to the women’s has allowed him to see the differences in the way the teams approach the game.
"They seem to have a lot more fun," Amos said. "The guys can tend to take themselves a little too seriously. During halftime of the national championship game (last year), the girls were dancing around in the middle of the field."
So far in the preseason, the team has put up a good fight against some top DI competition, according to coach McKenzie, and the newcomers are gaining valuable game experience before heading into league play.
Coach McKenzie, affectionately known as "Chief," a nod to his formidable stature, believes that this year’s team will be able to balance the two major expectations: to win and to have fun.
"We’ve seen how [winning a championship] is definitely within our grasp," McKenzie said. "They can have fun, but we can also go out and be a national champion."