Rugby X-Women looking for return to AUS supremacy

Rugby X-Women looking for return to AUS supremacy

White and Blue to battle Acadia, UPEI for 2023 banner

By Corey LeBlanc

ANTIGONISH – For two decades, as much as the leaves changing colours on the trees lining the STFX campus, a sure sign that fall was arriving came courtesy of the X-Women rugby program. In late October or early November – without fail – the White and Blue would be boarding a plane for a Canadian destination, where they would play for a USPORTS Women's Rugby Championship.

But, in 2022, there was no flight to Victoria or Toronto – just to name a couple of those stops over the years – but only the stark reality that the perennial national title contenders would remain grounded in Antigonish.

"It was disappointing for us – that's for sure," veteran X-Women head coach Mike Cavanagh said of the end to last season for the highly-decorated rugby program.

Eliminated in the AUS semi-final by the UPEI Panthers, the setback not only prevented STFX from playing for a conference championship, but also ended one of many unprecedented streaks established since he arrived to guide the program. It was the first time that the X-Women would not make the year-end national championship tournament.

"We didn't play many games," Cavanagh noted, while reflecting on that uncharacteristic finish to the 2022 campaign.

That lack of time on the pitch, he offered, stalled the development of what was a "young" roster last season; one that included several first and second-year student-athletes.

"I thought that we weren't where we should be," Cavanagh explained, pointing out that – in previous seasons, especially the highly-successful ones – not only the X-Women starters, but also the reserves, received more time on the pitch.

While sitting in his office one day, something caught his eye; something that cemented his belief that his X-Women hadn't played enough in 2022. It was a team poster from a decade earlier – one chronicling the program's perfect season in 2012 – which saluted their national championship run that ended with an unblemished 24-0 record.

With fewer games – coupled with the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic, including a lost AUS season and limited training and playing opportunities – Cavanagh said the X-Women were deeply affected, when it came to developing their young players.

"It really hurt us," he added.

So, with the goal of playing at least 20 matches this season, Cavanagh penciled in a late-summer tour of the northeastern United States.  

"We got on the road early this season," he said.

Cavanagh and his coaching staff had the chance to see their 45-player roster in action on the pre-season road trip.

Noting that several first-year players impressed him, he also commended the effort of his second-year student-athletes, who he said have shown "tremendous progress."

One of those now sophomores is the versatile Sierra Wood (Stirling, ON), who captured the 2022 award as the conference's top rookie.

Coupled with those first and second-years, the X-Women boast a strong core of athletes with more extensive experience, including prop Emma MacDougall (Halifax, NS) and back row Skye Koyote (Duncan, BC), who played high-calibre summer rugby in New Zealand and England, respectively.

"They are going to be leaders for us – on and off the field," Cavanagh noted.

He said the junior tandem of center Katherine 'Kat' Culligan (Halifax, NS) and 2nd row Sophie Beck (Fall River, NS) – both key members of the Halifax Keltics club program – are "fit and ready to go."

Flanker Camryn Kieynhans (Durban, South Africa), another third-year X-Woman, has been "playing well" in the pre-season.

"She is one of best defenders," Cavanagh noted of the 2022 all-star.

As for the 2023 recruiting class, he talked about Jessie Penney (Clarkes Beach, NL), who will add a welcome combination of "size and athleticism" to the line-up.

"She is a great physical presence," Cavanagh offered of Akwaima Akpan (Lower Sackville, NS), who played her club season with the Halifax Keltics and suited up for the U20 Rugby Canada team that toured Ottawa in July.

Freshman backrow Kate Childs (Halifax, NS), who her new head coach described as "fit and athletic," made the 40-player roster for this summer's national U18 east camp in Ottawa. Another touted newcomer – Drew Bell (Ajax, ON), who also participated in that Rugby Canada opportunity – will also call the Antigonish campus home.

"We expect all of these players to help us this season," Cavanagh said of the newcomers mentioned.

As for what X-Women fans can expect to see on the pitch, when they are playing well, the veteran mentor reflected on one of the signature attributes that cemented the program in the AUS and USPORTS championship picture for so many years.

"Get the ball and keep it," Cavanagh said emphatically.

He added, "We are trying to get back there."

Cavanagh believes he has the roster to reach that goal.

"Our players are bigger, fitter and ready to go," he said.

In outlining keys to success, Cavanagh explained, "It all starts up front," while noting the importance of that player group being able to "make space," including 2022 conference all-star Annie McMullon (Rothesay, NB).

"And, I think, we have the speed and skill in the back to make things happen," he added.

Cavanagh also envisions his X-Women as a dangerous group on set pieces.

"Even closer," he offered, when asked if he expects the 2023 campaign will be as competitive as last season.

In 2022, the Acadia Axewomen topped the table with a 5-1 record, with the Panthers (4-2) and X-Women (3-3), respectively, garnering second and third in the regular campaign. The Saint Mary's Huskies were winless at 0-6.

UPEI's magical post-season run began with a razor-thin 14-12 home victory over STFX, followed by a convincing 33-12 upset victory over host Acadia for the conference banner.

Although the Axewomen and Panthers may have lost some "key players," Cavanagh stressed that both program have "depth and athleticism."

He also noted that the Huskies – under up-and-coming head coach Emma DeLory – should also be improved.

"They have brought in some strong recruits," Cavanagh noted.

As for the X-Women, he praised his student-athletes for their steady improvement since kicking off training camp.

"They have been getting better every day, every week," Cavanagh offered, noting the pre-season matches south of the border – a couple of which were played in "super-hot" conditions – are a perfect example of that progress.

In that quick turnaround tour – four matches in three days against NCAA opponents – the White and Blue defeated Quinnipiac (17-14), Sacred Heart (24-20) and Brown (31-14), while collecting a 17-17 tie with American International College.

STFX wrapped up the pre-season with a one-day, non-conference tournament featuring opponents from AUS schools.

Cavanagh said everyone on the X-Women, so far, has shown a "great work ethic."

"They are doing the right things – on and off the field."

Noting that it won't be easy, Cavanagh agreed that his X-Women have a great opportunity to return to the top of the mountain in the AUS.

And, of course, that would bring the chance to renew that late-October, early-November travel tradition.

"We are hungry to get back there," Cavanagh said of a potential return to the national championship stage.

The X-Women will take the first regular-season step on that journey this weekend, when they host the Huskies on Saturday, Sept. 9 at STFX Stadium in a 2 p.m. ADT kick-off.