The St. F.X. X-Women rugby program is in familiar territory.
The Canadian university dynasty secured its sixth national crown, Nov. 4, with a 41-24 victory over the Guelph Gryphons in the U Sports championship game at Acadia University in Wolfville.
This most recent Monilex Trophy finish continued the Xaverian rugby tradition of winning titles in even-numbered years, with the other five banners coming in 2006, 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016.
When asked about keys to reaching the summit, once again, veteran head coach Mike Cavanagh praised the “heart and passion” of his team.
“I think that got better every game that we played,” he said.
Cavanagh noted the X-Women did not play their best rugby during an exhibition swing through Ontario over Thanksgiving weekend, when they played national powers Ottawa and Queen’s.
“We learned a lot from that trip and, when we came back, we slowly got better every game,” he said.
After receiving “a bit of a scare against Acadia,” in the regular season finale, Cavanagh noted the X-Women were much improved in the re-match, where they won the conference championship against the Axewomen.
“At nationals, every game we just got better – the players believed in what they were doing. They played with a lot of pride, so it was a very nice outcome for us.”
In the title tilt, after the Gryphons opened the scoring in the first minute, taking a 7-0 edge on a Julia Schell try and Madison Brattan conversion, X-Women tournament all-stars Joanna Alphonso (try) and Danielle Franada (conversion) combined, five minutes later, to knot the contest.
On an Erica Barton try and second conversion from Brattan, the Gryphons led 14-7.
Tournament MVP Olivia DeMerchant, with a try, and a Franada conversion, pulled the X-Women even for the second time.
“She was outstanding for us – the bigger the game, the better she played,” Cavanagh said of DeMerchant, noting the “tremendous experience” she brought to the program this season.
“It was nice for Olivia to come back for a fifth year and everything to work out. She really deserved to go out with a national championship.”
On a late try from player of the game and tournament all-star Amelia Hatfield, in the 37th minute, the Blue and White were up 19-14 at halftime.
In the opening two minutes of the second half, Sam Lake – who scored the first of three tries – and Franada, with her third conversion, extended the X-Women advantage to 26-14.
Rebecca Sundell of the Gryphons made it 26-19.
Lake and Franada answered, giving the X-Women a 33-19 edge.
Franada, with a penalty kick, made it 36-19.
Brodie Schmidt, in the 71st minute, pulled the Gryphons within 12 points – 36-24.
Lake wrapped up the scoring with a try in the 81st minute.
Lack of respect
The X-Women opened their national title march with a 42-21 quarterfinal win over the Queen’s Gaels, followed by a 26-12 victory over the Laval Rouge et Or in semifinal action.
Before play got underway, Alphonso and DeMerchant received 2nd team All-Canadian recognition.
At the Atlantic University Sport level, the duo was named all-stars, along with Carleigh Walters, Alison Blanchard and Sarah Hoerig.
“This one is definitely special,” Alphonso, a three-time national champion, said.
“I think the amount of hard work that we put in throughout the season; how underrated we were going into the tournament, and how we weren’t favored to go very far, makes it all the better.”
Cavanagh said “this one was nice because I don’t think we got the due respect that we deserve.”
He noted a reflection of that was what he perceived as a lack of X-Women selected as AUS all-stars and All-Canadians.
“I just thought that people were looking past us,” Cavanagh said.
To illustrate that idea, he recalled, the broadcast described the second-seeded X-Women defeating the seventh-ranked in quarterfinal action as “an upset.”
“It was nice to prove them wrong – that we were the team that we are and that we were very capable of winning a national championship,” Cavanagh said.
Noting she has played in “my fair share” of championship games, Alphonso said this one “takes the cake.”
“I think it is because everyone was working for each other. We didn’t have to convince anyone to play hard,” she said.”
Alphonso agreed balance and depth were keys to success.
She noted that was illustrated when Sophie Parker dislocated her knee in the semi-final game and Alex Hamilton stepped up.
“Alex has been our ‘15th man,’ if you will, off the bench through the season, making an impact. Making those hard hits and just being fresh legs on the field,” Alphonso said, noting Hamilton’s “amazing impact” in the championship game.
Cavanagh also praised his team’s depth.
“We could have used our bench, at any time, so that’s always a nice feeling, knowing you have 25 players who can go out and win you a game,” he said.
“I thought that we could play any style – I think we could move the ball, if we had to, but our strength was our big forwards and, once they got moving, we were very hard to stop.”
“That was, sort of, our game plan – we were going to keep pounding away until we found a team that could stop us and then we would have gone to plan ‘B,’ but, fortunately, we were able to stay with plan ‘A’ and it worked well for us.
He added “it won us a national championship.”
Alphonso also credited the program members who were not part of the 25-player roster that participated in nationals.
“They pushed the girls all season, creating healthy competition in practice, in order for us to be better and improve from the game before,” Alphonso explained, adding “kudos to them for keeping us on our toes and motivated.”
The 16th player
Wherever the X-Women have travelled to play for a national championship, fan support has been strong. With this tournament so close to home, that backing was at its peak.
“It was absolutely amazing. I think we had, by far, the biggest fan base of all the teams. Our fans were so loud and so proud of us,” Alphonso said, noting supporters even decorated the room where the team met for pre-game preparations.
“It was amazing to have them in the stands. Every time you felt you couldn’t go anymore in the game, you heard the fans cheering; pushing you and helping you dig deeper; letting you know you have something left in you.
“We have the best fans in the world,” Alphonso added.
Cavanagh said the fans “become our 16th player on the field.”
“It really inspires the girls to know they have so many people cheering and rooting for them. The support we got was amazing,” he added, noting the messages of support, from near and far, the X-Women received.
Shooting for seven
Looking to next season, and the push for a seventh national crown, Cavanagh agreed the program will return a strong core.
“I think we will be in the hunt for another national championship,” he said.
Although it will be “tough to fill boots” of the departing Alphonso and DeMerchant, he added, “we will be able to do it by committee.”
Cavanagh noted Maddie Harroun is “going to be amazing.”
“She is going to play prop for us and she will do an amazing job,” he said of the freshman on this year’s squad.
There is also Hamilton, who will slot in at #8.
“I really do believe that we will be in the mix again,” Cavanagh said, noting he expects to have a strong recruiting class.
“Winning national championships always help attract the best players, so we hope to bring in some more young players that will be ready to go.”