When longtime Saint John’s University rugby coach Tammy Cowan was asked if she expected her team to be where it is right now when practice started in August, she couldn’t help but laugh.
“When we started training camp, we only had 12 players on the roster,” said Cowan, who has been a coach of the club program at SJU since 2006. “Now we’re at 33. The older guys have done a phenomenal job getting out there and recruiting to help us grow the roster.
“A lot of the new players are freshmen and sophomores who have stepped in to play for us right away. So when you factor in all of that, it’s been pretty incredible to see the way things have turned out.”
The 8-0 Johnnies are preparing for a trip to this weekend’s Men’s Collegiate Rugby Championship Small College Cohen Cup division nationals in Houston, the final four of a division made up of around 200 teams.
SJU, the No. 2 seed in the 16-team tournament field, takes on No. 3 seed New Mexico Tech in a 4 p.m. semifinal Friday at Aveva Stadium, home to the Houston SaberCats of Major League Rugby.
In the other semifinal, scheduled for noon Friday, top-seeded Christendom (Virginia) takes on No. 6 seed Holy Cross (Massachusetts). The winners meet for the national title at 1 p.m. Sunday.
It marks the fifth final four appearance for the Johnnies during Cowan’s tenure. They won national titles in 2013 and ’14 and finished third in 2015 and ’19.
“We were able to get some great guys to come out – some with experience, others with no experience at all,” said senior captain Wyatt Kokesh, a nursing major from Aitkin, Minnesota.
“But that’s the great part about rugby. You have guys with all different levels of experience who come together. And it’s amazing how far we’ve come in the course of just one season.
“The whole year has had ebbs and flows. Our first game, we beat St. Thomas and they’re a great team. So we saw what we were capable off. And since then, our approach has been to just take it one game at a time. It’s funny because it doesn’t feel like we’re undefeated. We’ve just been so focused on the next game in front of us.
“To look back and see we’re now 8-0 is a really cool feeling.”
In the regional round held Nov. 20-21 in St. Louis, SJU edged No. 10 seed Franciscan (Ohio) 34-31, then knocked off No. 5 seed Rio Grande (Ohio) 51-34.
“The Franciscan game, we got down 12-0 to start the game, then we scored a couple of times quickly ourselves,” said Cowan, who along with co-coaches Garrett Larson ’15 and Dan Franklin ’06, make up the team’s coaching staff. “Fifteen minutes in there had already been four scores, which is a lot in rugby. From there, our guys focused and did what they needed to do to advance. That was a really big win for us.”
Cowan is pleased with the way her team has evolved over the course of the fall.
“It was challenging because we only had a couple of friendlies (exhibitions),” she said. “The rest were all league games (in the Northern Lights Conference) that we had to win. It was a real balancing act working the new players in and getting them the minutes they needed, but still staying competitive. We were begging teams to play an extra half as a friendly just to get our guys some extra playing time.”
Cowan said having leaders to rely on like Kokesh and fellow captain Dominic Odden, both fifth-year seniors who made the decision to come back for one more season, has helped a lot.
“They’ve both been great,” Cowan said. “Just having guys like that that the younger players can look to and emulate has made a big difference.”
And now the Johnnies have their sights set on another national title.
“We’re confident,” Kokesh said. “We have a lot of depth on this team now and I think that’s going to help carry us this weekend.”