The St. F.X. X-Women rugby program has five national crowns, but none have come in back-to-back fashion.
The defending U SPORTS champions can change that this season.
“I think we are going to be in the hunt, again, but I don’t want to say that too loudly,” head coach Mike Cavanagh said.
He noted the X-Women have lost only three starters – Breanna Allison, Ellen Murphy and Sabrina McDaid – from the 2016 team.
“Three big players, but I think we have players that are going to come in and fill their shoes,” Cavanagh said.
“We had a lot of good rookies and second-year players [last season] who were itching to get on to the field and I think they are ready to perform.
“I really didn’t think last year was our year – I thought this year could be our year,” he added.
Cavanagh talked more about the seasons following the previous four gold medal finishes.
“It seems like, every time we win a championship, the girls take the next summer off and we underachieve the next year,” he said.
“If the girls go out this year and do what they are supposed to do, and listen to the message that we give, I think that we will be back in the hunt. But, as I said, sometimes they forgot all those little things you have to do to become a champion.
“It doesn’t get easier, it gets harder – there will be a bigger target on our back and teams will be playing their best games against us,” Cavanagh added.
He said the X-Women will have “to respect our opponents and really put in the hard work.”
Strong up front
When asked about keys to reaching the top of the mountain, once again, Cavanagh thinks “we live and die by our forwards.”
“When you look at Joanna Alphonso (prop), Sam Lake (prop) and Danielle Cormier (hooker) – our front row – and then, in the back row, we have a very veteran group with Miranda Sample (back row), Brooke Newsome (flanker) and Carolyn Williams (#8, lock) – ‘Big Red.’
“Again, with those forwards, we are going to live and die by them. At the end of the day, if they are able to dominate, it will really make our job easy,” he added.
As for Antigonish flavour, Cavanagh expects sophomore Sara McCarron (2nd row) to be a contributor.
“I expect her to have a starting position and play a big role in helping us achieve our goal as national champions,” he said.
Veteran center Jaelei Meyer, who is returning for a fifth season, is part of a deep and talented group of backs.
There are also June Beals (wing) and Meghan Buchanan (center), who Cavanagh said the latter “really stepped up last season as a freshman.”
“We are expecting big things from them,” he added.
Cavanagh said he expected 15 newcomers in training camp, which opened Aug. 25, including Sarah Hoerig, who played for Team Canada (U-18) this season.
“She is going to bring us speed, which I think is one of the elements of our game, last year, that we were missing – that huge game-breaker,” he added of the wing-fullback.
“She is going to come in and make a huge difference for us, right away.”
Hannah Ellis (#10) is coming off a silver-medal winning performance as a member of Team Nova Scotia in national competition.
“She was one of the best players at the under-18 tournament,” Cavanagh said of the Halifax native, who he described as “tough as nails.”
“I am really excited about her,” he added.
Katie Pentz – at 6’2”, 210 pounds – joins the X-Women from New Glasgow.
“She has the potential to fill Ellen Murphy’s boots – she has the same size and the same temperament,” Cavanagh said.
Keisha Kane, a back row player from the Annapolis Valley, also played with Team Nova Scotia.
“We are happy to have her come on board, as well,” he noted.
Danielle Franada was a member of Team Alberta, which captured gold at that recent U-18 tournament.
“She was one of their best backs and she will be able to play anywhere in the backfield,” he said.
Cavanagh added “we are pretty excited about the players coming in.”
When asked about his expectations for the four-team AUS conference, the veteran bench boss said “it is going to be better.”
“I think Saint Mary’s went out and did a lot of recruiting; they got a lot of good Nova Scotia players – provincial players,” Cavanagh said of the Huskies.
“I know their program has been injected with some money and some commitment to make them better.”
As for the UPEI Panthers, under then first-year coach John LaBoyne, who faced the X-Women in last season’s championship game, Cavanagh expects them to be improved.
“And Acadia, of course, is always tough, so I think our league has really taken some huge steps to get better,” he added.
Cavanagh was asked about what X-Women fans should expect to see on the field.
“I think we will have a bit more speed – with some of the recruits we have in – but I think, again, we are going to live and die with our big pack of forwards, getting the ball, keeping it and dominating the play,” he said.
Cavanagh noted their work with set pieces.
“Our scrums are excellent and we will have to work on our line-outs from last year,” he said.
Cavanagh agreed the expectations are high.
“If they come back fit and ready, I think we are going to be a very good team,” he said.
The X-Women will open the regular season Friday, September 8, when they host the Huskies.
Kick-off at Oland Stadium is set for 7 p.m.