NORTHFIELD, Vt. – The Norwich University women's rugby team enters the 2018-19 season looking to continue its momentum from last season with the program's first winning record in three seasons.
The Cadets went 6-3 during the fall 15s schedule last year, bowing out to three-time defending national champion Quinnipiac in the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA) First Round.
While Norwich didn't lose much quantity wise last season, the Cadets did sustain heavy losses quality wise with their two co-captains and NIRA All-American selections in Denisse Zambon and Vic Olchowoj.
"Last year we had two incredible captains in Vic and Denisse, who took our ship in a great direction," said head coach Austin Hall. "They were two of the best leaders we have had in our program's history."
Hall embarks on his 15th season at the helm of the program that has achieved incredible success under his tutelage, including four 7s national championships and two 15s national titles, with the latest coming in 2014.
Norwich had close to 50 players out of preseason camp, which is the second most the program has ever had.
"We worked hard all preseason with a whole new approach this year compared to years past," Hall said. "I coached a men's club team this summer and used that as guinea pig. We're much more attacked focused and laying down a different foundation. We also had a lot more contact and physicality this preseason and we've stayed really healthy so far that is a good sign for the season."
Hall is hopeful that the new system will help set-up new players for success in different roles after the Cadets lost some key contributors the last two seasons.
Norwich still returns two-time NIRA All-American selection Sheila Decker (Saranac Lake, N.Y.) to lead this year's team. Decker led Norwich for the second straight year in points scored with 12 tries, 31 conversions and two penalty kicks for 128 points. She totaled 90 points as a sophomore.
"Sheila has been fierce and fit in preseason," Hall said. "She'll be a force to be reckoned with and is one of the top players in the country."
"Mweze has shown really great growth over her four years coming from a B side player to now being relied on as a key player on the A side," Hall said. "Runion is a newer player that has stepped up so far. We're a forward heavy team as opposed to having a lot of strength in our backs as in past years."
"Amber Kelly is pure power and not many people want to get in the way of her once she gets going," Hall said. "Reagan Aldersea was a breakout player in 7s and has been playing well in preseason with a bigger role on the team this year."
Returning junior Caitlin Heale (Christchurch, New Zealand) was among the team leaders in try scoring during the 15s season and will expect to contribute in the backfield in 2018-19.
Norwich is the lone NCAA Division III team that is in the Tier 1 division for NIRA in 2018-19. The Cadets will once again face a daunting early schedule with three-time defending national champion Quinnipiac and American International College as their first two games.
"We have a good balance of a couple of the top teams in the country and then some of the newer teams in the country and then a bunch of battles that should be close on paper," Hall said. "Quinnipiac has been the top team in the country the last three years so we'll have a really tough opener. It's going to be competitive each week. They know we're a physical, hard-hitting team. AIC should be a good battle. We've been gaining ground on them the last few years."
Norwich will also face University of New England, West Chester, Colby-Sawyer, Brown and the Notre Dame College (Ohio) this season as part of their fall 15s slate of games.
The Norwich/Colby-Sawyer match on Oct. 20 will be live-streamed starting at 11 a.m.