By Emilie Medland-Marchen, October 25 2016 —
The Dinos rugby program is having a comeback season, earning a spot in the U Sports national championship.
It has been a year that’s unfolded nearly identically to 2015, with an undefeated regular season and a match-up against the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns for a chance at the Canada West finals.
Last season, the Dinos were undefeated heading into the Canada West final four. But despite a perfect season behind them, the team lost out on making it to the Canada West finals by just 10 points.
But this season is completely different. After downing the Pronghorns on Oct. 21, the undefeated Dinos won their ticket to the Canada West finals. There, they secured their position as the top team in the Canada West, taking the match with a 29–14 score over the University of Victoria Vikes and earning a position in the U Sports national championships for the first time since the program’s inception.
Head coach Simon Chi credits a focus on leadership and establishing a strong team culture for the change in tone from last year.
“We have a pretty strong leadership group,” he said. “At the same time, we’ve been pretty aggressive with our recruiting. We lost some people and basically everyone stepped up into bigger roles.”
The top-seeded Dinos were prepared to make sure the ill-fated semifinal matchup from last season would not be repeated this year.
“We definitely have some redemption from last year,” third-year fullback Elysa Sandron said. “It’s not a repeat of last year. We’re going to go out there like we’ve been playing all season.”
That determination was clear in the match against the Pronghorns on Oct. 21. The opening point was scored by Sandron with a try and convert in the first minute of the game. Her points kicked off a stellar night for the Dinos, who earned a 19–0 lead in the first 15 minutes of the game.
Fourth-year back row Temitope Ogunjimi is a major key to the Dinos’ success this season. In the game against Lethbridge, she put five trys on the board in the first half, with three successful converts. Her points gave the Dinos a dominant 38–0 lead going into the second half — a score that went relatively unchallenged by Lethbridge until the end of the game.
Ogunjimi has proven to be a major asset to the Dinos both on and off the field. She also competes on the Dinos wrestling team, balancing both sports and her academic career. Last year, Ogunjimi took time off from rugby to focus on wrestling. But this season, she’s returned in a major way.
“My approach to this year was just to be a part of the team and help in whatever way I could,” Ogunjimi said. “I haven’t played in a while. I just wanted to do as much as I could for the team — whether that meant in the back position or in the forwards or if that meant me jumping up and catching the balls — doing whatever it takes to help the team win Canada West.”
The win against Lethbridge on Oct. 21 gave the Dinos an automatic bye to the national championships as the number two team in the Canada West conference. But the Dinos hadn’t quenched their thirst yet — they were out to solidify their position as the number one in the west.
The match against Victoria brought another early lead. The U of C was up 17–0 at halftime. After the break, Ogunjimi’s try brought the Dinos to a 22–7 score. The team kept Victoria at bay throughout the rest of the game, ultimately earning the victory and the Dinos’ first ever Canada West title since the program’s inception in 2009.
The team may have overcome the psychological hurdle of losing the semifinals last year, but their success is by no means a surprise. The team has churned out national team talents like DaLeaka Menin and Emily Tuttosi. But despite the success of their individual athletes, this is the first time the Dinos have earned a spot in the national championships.
Chi is conscious of the ways in which strong athletics teams fluctuate from the loss and gain of new players. But an influx of rookies — which normally requires a few years to build up a new team culture and dynamic — seems to have only helped the Dinos.
“The nature of university sport is that all teams are in a constant state of flux,” Chi said. “I think it’s a case of there’s a lot of teams that have had to reload. We’ve been able to stay undefeated this year because our best players have been playing well.”
Under Chi’s guidance, the rugby team has a laser focus that results in strong performances. With an emphasis on developing team culture and perfecting the basics, it’s a formula that has pushed the Dinos to compete with the top teams in Canada.
“We’ve been focused on doing the basics and understanding why we do things,” Chi said. “We’re just focused on executing. That’s all it is — we break the game down into basic units and execute within those units. And that’s sort of been the key to what we do.”
Now that the fight for the Canada West is over, the Dinos have even more work to do. But Chi sees this moment as an opportunity to show the rest of Canada the skills the Dinos rugby team has developed over the years.
“We look at this as a season-long development,” he said. “After each game we re-assess, we re-evaluate the areas that need to get better. We have a vision of where we want to be, and this season is just working towards that.”
The Dinos rugby team will now head to the U Sports championships in Victoria, British Columbia. The tournament kicks off on Nov. 3.