Women's DI Playoff Preview: Reigning Finalists within two wins of Fall Championship return

LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Following a weekend of play-in matches, the playoff field for the 2016 USA Rugby Women’s Division I Fall Championship is down to eight schools. The Nov. 19-20 weekend’s Quarterfinals and Semifinals will send just two to the Dec. 3-4 Championship event at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

Cincinnati’s Brimelow Fields will host 2015 runner-up Air Force Academy, University of Minnesota, Rutgers University, and Texas A&M University in the West Regional, while 2015 Champion University of Connecticut, Boston College, University of Northen Iowa, and University of Notre Dame will travel to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for the East Regional.

West Regional: Brimelow Fields – Cincinnati, Ohio

Air Force Academy vs. Texas A&M University

It is one thing to navigate through a playoff bracket to the championship match; it is another thing to come within minutes of claiming the championship itself. For Air Force, a late yellow card and ensuing try conceded meant the 2015 DI Fall Championship would travel to Connecticut rather than Colorado.

The Falcons turned the corner from the disappointment of 2015 to focus on the 2016 Rocky Mountain season and the awaiting non-conference matchups they had scheduled against sister academies – and varsity programs – Army and Navy as well as Women’s DI Elite programs Brigham Young University and University of New Mexico. Air Force conceded no more than 13 points in each of its six wins against improving sides such as University of Colorado and Colorado State University, and only suffered losses at the hands of Army and BYU.

“For us, it was an honor to compete,” Falcons Head Coach Amy Rusert said of the matchups with the military academies. “It was also a great opportunity to see how high that bar is set from a resource standpoint and where we hope the Academy can get to one of these days.

“Losses keep you very honest and tend to reveal much more than wins, both in film and in character. We’re constantly looking to fight above our weight. We like knowing we take on about as competitive a schedule as we possibly can being sort of geographically limited, as well as having a finite number of playing weeks in the fall season.”

Rusert’s roster is not littered with young women looking for redemption for last year’s loss; on the contrary, Air Force has just one senior from the 2015 team amongst a host of underclassmen, including 12 true freshmen that have staked claims in the starting XV. The Falcons will look to give all 25 players traveling to Regionals game time across the weekend.

Colorado Springs was the location of the West Regional last year, giving Air Force home-field advantage. No team will have that advantage in Ohio this weekend, but, if weather patterns stay the same, the Falcons may benefit from the chillier conditions to which their Quarterfinal opponent, Texas A&M, may be accustomed.

The Aggies learned some important lessons from their winless College 7s National Championship campaign in North Carolina in May, the most important being the need for improved fitness. They did not wait around for the next sevens season to put it into action, either, realizing the benefits that could be reaped in their 15s play. Three mandatory fitness sessions on top of the two training sessions each week led the Aggies to a Southwest championship and a playoff berth.

Playmakers Becca Huizar (fly half) and Megan Urdiales (scrum half) are veterans that have set the tone for the Aggies this season in a back line that has built continuity over the course of the past two seasons. Linking the backs with the forwards is No. 8 Tyler Greenwood, who also exudes the leadership qualities necessary for a successful teammate and, in effect, team. The trio will have work to do against an Air Force program that has Championship trophies in its cabinets if they want to advance to Sunday’s Semifinal.

Rutgers University vs. University of Minnesota

It is not odd to see the Scarlet Knights in the playoffs, but this will be the first time the women’s program has reached the DI postseason after it moved up from Division II earlier this year. Life in the Big 10 is not easy – especially with collegiate powerhouse Pennsylvania State University in the conference – but Rutgers walked away with just one loss to a non-Nittany Lions team, University of Michigan, and beat Michigan State University in the play-in for the postseason berth.

“It was extremely challenging,” Rutgers Head Coach Ken Pape said of the move to DI. “We get to play Penn State twice a year. My girls absolutely adored that experience. You don’t realize where you’re really at until you play a team like Penn State.”

When Pape met with the team’s leadership group at the beginning of the season, he was told the team wanted to be competitive and not get “beaten up.” His response? A stringent workout plan and fitness sessions to complement the rugby trainings. They committed to three fitness sessions, three practices, and a match per week.

The Scarlet Knights did not need much more motivation than that they received from the Round of 16 defeat to 2015 DII Fall Championship runner-up Bloomsburg University last year, but losing 13 seniors on top of the dozen graduated from the previous year would shake any program. Before the opening restart of the first season in DI, the athletes worked to make up for the losses, and saw their mentality and work ethic make the jump, too.

“Their commitment off the field has led to their success on the field,” Pape said. “The girls are executing our game plan, their repetitions in games, and you can see as the games go on – we’re scoring tries at the end of games.

“We professionalized what we were doing. You’d look at our club and think it’s no longer just a club sport, that it has the appearance of a varsity sport.”

Featuring just two seniors in the squad and Big 10 Forward of the Year Shai Hodges, Rutgers is hoping to end the “Rutgers Curse of the Sweet Sixteen,” a moniker that summarizes the school’s DII history. Since there is no Round of 16 in the DI Fall Championship playoffs, the name will have to be adjusted to account for the Quarterfinal matchup with an experienced University of Minnesota.

The Gophers will not want to get ahead of themselves with a mouth-watering rematch against Air Force a possibility for Sunday’s Semifinal. Rutgers’ rapid rise could surprise Minnesota, even if the coaching staff has stacks of playoff résumés intact. Coaches Ali Gillberg, Lynelle Kugler, Rebecca Radtke, and Katie Sjeklocha have led the team to a second consecutive Midwest title, not to mention an undefeated season. Another program with a short list of graduated seniors, Minnesota has grown thanks to, in part, healthy youth and club participation in the state.

A talented recruiting class has not just sat on the bench on match days watching the same starting XV week after week. The group was thrown into matches in preseason and has given the starters depth down the stretch. Knowing how last year’s championship-winning season panned out – a first-round loss to Air Force – the Gophers will be counting on everyone traveling to Cincinnati to leave it all out on the pitch Saturday before doing it again Sunday.

“The team deserves to be proud of winning the division again,” Radtke said. “But, just like last year, it means nothing once you are in the playoffs.

“The team is going into playoffs about as healthy as every other team this time of year. We are going into this year’s playoffs with more veterans than last year, which is nice. We will have some fresh new talent out there, but I am excited to see our veterans from last year get another crack at regionals.”

East Regional: Vassar College Farm & Prentiss Sports Complex – Poughkeepsie, New York

University of Notre Dame vs. University of Connecticut

The Fighting Irish dethroned DI Elite school Indiana University in the Big 10 this season, finishing its divisional schedule 6-0 prior to the conference’s championship weekend. The Big 10 is won by Penn State most years, and this was no different, but the team that Ricardo Ramirez put on the field against the Nittany Lions proved Notre Dame has built a program worthy of the playoffs.

Junior-heavy, Notre Dame returned 21 players from the 2015-16 season and welcomed a freshman class of 22. Of that, Ramirez estimates maybe four players had experience playing rugby prior to moving to South Bend, Ind. While the on-field work the team has put in has obviously paid dividends, the camaraderie within the group is what has brought the team to its first playoff appearance in several years.

“I think everyone’s comfortable with their roles and capabilities,” Big 10 Coach of the Year Ramirez, who’s been with the program for three years, said. “This group is truly close because there are so many of them that are the same age, that started at the same time. They all have had the horrible beginnings and then got better and better, and are doing it together as a huge group.”

Conference Back of the Year Sophia Asah, a soccer goalkeeper-turned-rugby full back, has given the team the added cushion of reliability on defense and with ball in hand, but Notre Dame has readied itself for a deep playoff run by spreading the try-scoring between seven different backs and a further seven forwards. The big-game experience needed for the playoffs came early on in the season in a narrow defeat of Indiana and the back-to-back matchups with Indiana and Penn State to end the season.

University of Connecticut will have ideas of playoff success of its own in New York this weekend. Indeed, the Huskies will look up to no one as long as the 2015 Fall Championship trophy sits at home. That is not to say the team is going into Saturday’s Quarterfinal matchup with the result already determined, having needed a play-in match to get there after a conference championship loss to Boston College.

Princeton nearly upset the reigning Fall Champion last weekend, but the class of Connecticut shone through. Big-time try-scorers Alecia Allene and Emily Reed each dotted down twice in the contest, and are raring to bring the Huskies back to the Final.

University of Northern Iowa vs. Boston College

Northern Iowa reached the playoffs by beating a tough Bowling Green State University team on top of a second-place Midwest Conference season behind Minnesota. The Panthers missed the playoffs last season only to be buoyed by alumna Meghan Flanigan as head coach this year.

In what appeared to be a rebuilding year coming off of player-coached seasons, Northern Iowa fell in its first match to neighbor Iowa State. As Flanigan recalled, it was not until the second game of the season when she knew the team could make a run for the playoffs. The Panthers rattled off four wins before a two-point defeat to the Gophers gave them the standings points necessary to win an at-large bid to the postseason.

Boston College could not have prepared any better for the playoffs than facing reigning Fall Champion Connecticut twice before the knockout rounds. The Eagles, on the smaller side compared to the average rugby team, kept a much bigger Connecticut from an easy win at the end of the regular season, falling, 15-7.

A week later, Boston College found itself in the Northeast Conference playoffs, and reached the Final against none other than the Huskies. The Eagles conceded early but went into the break with a 12-5 lead, and replied to a Connecticut try with one of their own to see out the victory, 17-10.

“What we learned from the second game was we can be adaptable and we don’t have to stick to one strategy,” Boston College Assistant Coach Meghan Daly said. “We’d been racking up points in conference play all season until we lost to UConn. That second game, coming back and beating UConn, we realized we’re good.

“We’re going into this weekend with confidence; they’re confident in one another. It’s kind of exciting to play a team we’ve never played before. We’re really focusing on that matchup.”

Boston College has had a renewed focus on “safety” this season, from passing tackling tests to drilling proper body position in rucks and both ends of the tackle, following a year in which its continuity took a hit with a slew of injuries. The Eagles have been able to put out a consistent starting XV save for one or two players throughout the year, and go into the playoffs one of the healthier teams in the division.

“They just get a rhythm,” Daly said. “They’ve had so many minutes of play time together. We’ve had subs who have come in when those players were gone and we didn’t see a drop-off in performance, which is also what you want to see with a deep bench. You can trust not just your starting XV, but the entire squad.”