Women’s rugby talks DII move



Annika Culver runs down the field during the 2019 All Minnesota rugby tournament on Saturday, Sept. 14 in Otsego, Minnesota. This is the first season the Black Katts will compete in a DI league after moving up from DII last year, the change came after the team struggled to find teams in their division who would play them. The season record is 5-0.

Sydney Mohr, Features Editor

A highly unrecognized sport due to its “club status” on campus, Winona State University’s women’s rugby team the Black Katts has taken leaps and bounds within the past year, the biggest being its jump to Division I.

Every other sport at Winona State falls under the Division II category, meaning, “…Division II institutions have to sponsor at least five sports for men and five for women, (or four for men and six for women), with two team sports for each gender, and each playing season represented by each gender,” according to the NCAA official website.

However, since rugby is classified as a club sport and not an official Winona State athletics team, they do not fall under this rule.

John Krzewinski, head coach for the Black Katts women’s rugby team, has been their coach for over a decade. This is the first season the Black Katts are playing in the DI division.

“This fall season is the first we will be competing in the Midwest D1 league.  We had made to previous attempts before but were unsuccessful for various reasons,” Krzewinski said. “The recent decision was simple to make—after winning our 10th consecutive state championship, teams were becoming reluctant to play us.”

It is not hard to see why.

There were instances last season of the Black Katts beating teams over 100 to nothing, leaving teams in fear of the wrath that the Black Katts could bring to the pitch.

Krzewinski also noted that before, when the team was still ranked DII, they were able to hold their own in midwestern tournaments against the big DI schools.

“We felt like we were able to compete at that level. But, playing those teams week-after-week will be a big adjustment for us- we’ll have to see what changes will need to be made for the team,” Krzewinski said.

So far, the Black Katts have gone 5-0 in their season, with a first-place win in the All Minnesota tournament, and a 56-12 win over University of Northern Iowa on Saturday, Sept. 14.

The Winona State Black Katts win an offensive ruck in a game against the University of Minnesota Duluth during the 2019 All Minnesota rugby tournament.

Madeline, a junior majoring in pre-med allied health, has been on the rugby team since her first year at Winona State.

“It’s been crazy being able to see this change for our team. We’re excited to challenge ourselves and have a change of pace from last year when teams would forfeit against us and we really only got to play in playoffs,” Madeline said. “I’m excited to be able to see this new opportunity fold out for our team and further our skills.”

With the team losing field time due to forfeits, it was hard to figure out where skills needed improvement and where strengths were on the pitch.

“We didn’t know what we had, we didn’t know what we needed to improve on. Moving into the DI league was our only option to guarantee games and help us prepare for the USA Rugby National Championship, should we be good enough to qualify,” Krzewinski said.

Roger Riley, assistant head coach and advisor for the Rugby team, agreed with Krzewinski.

“While we are still considered a DII (USA Rugby DII, not NCAA DII) rugby team on a national basis, we are playing a DI league schedule,” Riley said. “We will route back to the DII national playoffs at the end of the league. We moved up to DI because DII teams in Minnesota and the Dakotas have been reluctant to play against us.”

With their new schedule, the Black Katts will be playing teams such as the University of Wisconsin – Madison, University of Minnesota and Iowa State University, among others.

Veteran player Abigail Andler, who has been playing for Winona State for multiple years, said she is very excited about the change.

“It’s going to be a great season,” Andler said. “We may have a lot of new players, new girls who have never played rugby, but we work them hard and show them the ropes and we have the skills to play against these big-name teams.”

Their biggest competitor, as Andler said, is the University of Minnesota.

Junior Abby Andler makes an attempt on goal during the 2019 All Minnesota rugby tournament at the VFW Soccer Fields in Otsego, Minnesota on Saturday, Sept. 14.

The Black Katts have struggled to beat them in past years, but this past weekend were able to best them 57-0 in the first game of the All Minnesota tournament.

This change in divisions has not only brought a higher level of competition from other universities, but has also brought on competition between the players on the team.

“There’s a competition for spots on the team now. We’re all improving a lot, but we are all pushing ourselves to be the best we can and earn our spot on the pitch,” Madeline said. “It’s an incredible feeling to be able to defeat someone like the University of Minnesota, you come off the pitch just glowing.”

Krzewinski has also noticed the competitive shift within the team during practice.

“It’s created competition for starting spots at practice,” Krzewinski said. “We have a lot to prove that we belong there.”

While the goal of the Black Katts has always been the same, make it to Nationals and the final four, this year with the move to DI, a little more is on the line.

Now they are able to qualify for the USA Rugby National Championship, which will allow them to compete with DI teams from across the nation, not just the midwest.

Although this can financially be a struggle for a university club team, it will not stop the girls from dreaming and competing until they get there.

“We are only one week into competition. Last weekend we played in the season opener ‘All Minnesota’ tournament and went 4-0 overall, bringing back the tournament trophy again after the University of Minnesota edged us the last two times we were in the final,” Krzewinski said. “It was good to have a strong weekend and see players step up. It also gave us an opportunity to see our new players compete outside of practice.”

Andler is excited to continue to watch her team grown and evolve as the season continues.

“We may be a small town, but we have such strong players and we have the ability to take down those bigger schools,” Andler said. “We’re going against big colleges that can’t manage to pull together a full team, and we’re defeating them with ease.”

The Black Katts will play on Saturday, Sept. 21 at the University of Iowa at 12 p.m.

Senior Gabby Calametti charges down the field during the 2019 All Minnesota rugby tournament where the Black Katts placed first on Saturday, Sept. Their record so far this season is 5-0.