New coach, new division, new team: the season ahead for women’s rugby

Photo Credit: Mackenzie Gerry

Photo Credit: Mackenzie Gerry

Since 2016, the women’s rugby team has consistently been charting a path that, if followed, can and will lead them to contend for OUA championships.

The 2018-19 season saw them go undefeated in the Russell division, securing them a playoff berth. They were unable to win in the semi-final round, however, leading them to a fourth place overall finish.

Would it have been nice to medal? Absolutely, and that’s every team’s goal, but their top four finish allowed them to be promoted from the Russell division to the Shiels division. Watching the team last season, it was clear that they were leaps and bounds ahead of their competition, there was not a single divisional game in which they didn’t win by at least 50 points.

The program owes a lot of its success to the pure talent and athleticism from new players, but the influence of former head coach, Stefanie Pavlovich, cannot be underestimated. The former Brock rugby player’s hiring coincided with the team’s upward swing. She left the program this year to accept a position as Physical Education Program Leader and Athletic Director at Eden High School in St. Catharines, after being named the Russell division’s Coach of the Year.

Her replacement, Mark Smerdon, has some big shoes to fill. Smerdon has no lack of coaching experience, but he’s never coached at the OUA level.

“When I took the job I knew that they had gone from tier two last year and they were promoted to tier one. Obviously there was a transition for myself coming in as a new coach, and for them having probably had an easier schedule last year in tier two and now feeling a lot more pressure in tier one,” said Smerdon.

Smerdon had seen the women play last year and although impressed with individual performances, saw room for them to grow as a team.

“They had some pure athleticism which seemed to take them through and put some good scores on the board against other teams.”

This year he’ll be looking for more team structure on both defence and attack, as well as a fast and creative style of play.

“I think we’ll be smaller than some of the better teams in this tier.”

The team is in capable hands with Smerdon but Pavlovich’s lasting legacy will be in the attitude she instilled in the team over her seasons at Brock.

“The biggest thing I’ve noticed since I’ve been here is the real positive tone amongst the team there are a lot of first and second years on this team with a few vets,” said Smerdon.

He’s already looking to his future with this team, setting goals for the years ahead.

Smerdon was reluctant to take the position at first, as he lives almost an hour away from Brock, but after working with the team he’s found himself satisfied to have taken the opportunity.

“I’m more excited to work forward with this program and we’ve already started planning year two and year three with the other coaching staff.”

The Badgers have already played two exhibition games against Russell division teams, Trent and Carleton. Both games ended in a loss for the Badgers but Smerdon said that winning those games wasn’t his biggest goal.

“For us it was our defensive structure and not allowing anyone up the middle so the only place they score is out wide,” he said. “The positioning of our players on the field in attack and understanding where we’re supposed to be at what time.”

Both of those goals were met and Smerdon is looking to move forward improving their decision making on the field.

“The one other goal was how many of our own ball can we maintain and win with good rucks and it wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t perfect by any stretch, so that’s certainly a work in progress.”

Smerdon believes his team is on the right track, but doesn’t want to set any unrealistic goals. The regular season kicks off with a home game against Western. Smerdon is optimistic about their chances against the Mustangs.

“I think we’re probably fairly even right now, if I can get the girls ready and get them healthy at the right time I think I can put the line up out there that can probably beat them.”

The team has been improving steadily, but this season will be their biggest challenge yet, with a new coach, new division, and new faces on the field. It’s anybody’s guess as to whether they’ll be able to maintain their upward momentum.

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