2018 College Fall and National Championship Weekend Preview

This weekend teams will arrive at the Mecklenburg County Sportsplex @ Matthews in Charlotte, North Carolina to compete over Saturday and Sunday to be crowned the 2018 Fall Collegiate Championships, or the Men’s D2 National Champion.

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This year’s field of 12 semifinalists and finalists see seven of last year’s field return and three schools with championships already to their name looking to add more silverware to the cabinet.

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Men’s D1AA Fall Championship Game:

Saint Joseph’s vs. Bowling Green State:

Kickoff 9am EST, Sunday December 2.

Last year’s runner-up, Saint Joseph’s returns to the championship stage in an attempt to go one step further this year. Standing in the way of their shot at redemption, is Bowling Green State; the Falcons are making their first appearance in the Fall Championship since 2016. Both teams have knocked off rivals of the other to get to this stage, Bowling Green beat, the Hawks’ Championship game opponent last year, Mary Washington; while Saint Joseph’s took down the Falcons’ conference rival Western Michigan en route to the final. It is shaping up to be an evenly contested match with the result firmly up in the air.

For Saint Joseph’s as they enter the familiar arena, the bitter disappointment of last year’s result is firmly entrenched in their minds, “I think that loss is still lingering with us and the guys are excited for another opportunity at the Championship,” noted Dan Yarusso, Saint Joseph’s Head Coach. One of the other motivating factors for the Hawks this season has been rallying around the loss of one of their teammates, Mark Dombroski, who tragically passed away in the Spring. They have dedicated the season to him, and will be using his memory as motivation when they step onto the field on Sunday. “It has certainly been a tough year for the Hawks with the tragic loss of Mark Dombroski last spring.  All the guys are playing in his memory and hope to bring home the trophy in his honor.”

Bowling Green, has been one of the biggest surprises so far this playoffs series, while everybody saw them as being a tough team, not many had them going passed last year’s national champions, Mary Washington in the semifinal. The big win has certainly left a sense of belief within the team, coach Tony Mazzarella noting the feeling around camp is “very confident, especially after beat two teams of that caliber.” Having lost to Saint. Joseph’s in last year’s semifinal revenge could be another motivating factor for the Falcons, but instead they’ve put it behind them and know they are a different team to what they were 12 months ago, “Last year was last year. We have a new group that’s focused on this year and this year alone.”

Despite their strong showing twelve months ago, the Hawks aren’t about to let it get the better of them this weekend when they face the falcons once again. They acknowledge when they step on to the field on Saturday it will be a completely different kettle of fish. “We were grateful to get the win last year but realize that this is a new year and we are going to be playing a team that is on fire right now after knocking out Kentucky and Mary Washington.  They are very good team that is well coached so we definitely have our work cut out for us.”

The forecast for the weekend shows clouds in the sky and the expecatation of rain. This will suit Bowling Green’s style of play. They are a team built around strong forward play. In, possibly, wet and sloppy conditions keeping the ball close and tight will be a major advantage to the Falcons. Mazzarella will be excited to play in the conditions forecast, as he belives his forwards will set the tone for the game, “Our forwards have been the most consistent group all year, so we will be looking to them to set the pace.”

While, dynamism is the creed by which the Hawks operate, they know the platform their forwards lay in crucial to their success in the backs. Yarusso believes seniors George Harris and Nick Ballas will set the tone for them up front; while the backs’ performance will be contingent on the performance of their flyhalf Noah Niumataiwalu and wing Mikey Hoffman. They know if they are going to get good performances out of them, they will first have to shut down the back row and their ability to wreak havoc at the breakdown. Slow ball prove to be incredibly harmful to the Hawks’ game plan.

The keys to success on the weekend are pretty simple for Yarusso and his men; execute the fundamentals and they will come away with the win. “We are going to have to stick to our game plan and will look to get off to a quick start.  We will need to do a good job controlling possession and minimizing our mistakes.” For the Falcons, it is pretty simple for Mazzarella if his team can win the physical battle they will win the championship.

It is shaping up to be a great tussle a Bowling Green side that likes to assert physical dominance over teams, and a Saint Joseph’s side that enjoys running the bigger boys ragged.

Women’s D1 Fall Championship Game:  

Davenport University vs. Air Force:

Kickoff is at 11am EST, Sunday December 2.

The previous two fall champions will face off this weekend when reigning champions, Davenport come up against 2016 champions, Air Force. Both teams have been in dangerous form this season and look to continue their ascension to the pinnacle of the women’s D1 competition in the fall.

Last year, Davenport cruised to victory in the Championship match against Notre Dame, 89-24. They were able to pray on a team that had never reach those heights before. This year it will be different. This year they will be facing their predecessors, Air Force. These two aren’t strangers and in fact it was Davenport, in last year’s semifinal, that snatched Air Force’s chance at a repeat away from them. Davenport knows they will need to be on top of their game to ensure the roles from 2017 are not reversed in 2018. Head Coach Greg Teliczan explaining “We feel pretty confident but we aren’t taking anything for granted. Air Force is a quick team and they’re strong. We’re going to have to play our best game of the year and shut down their speed as best we can, if we want to win.”

Two years ago, when Air Force were crowned champions they had some young members on the squad that played vital roles. Now they are back, more matured and will be able to be hoping to tap into the championship mindset from 2016. Air Force coach Amy Rusert elaborated, “Having a handful of juniors and seniors who were freshmen and sophomores on the 2016 squad will lend a great deal of championship game experience and poise to the upcoming championship game.” Given Davenport’s high retention rate, Air Force will need as much experience as it can get.

At the heart of Davenport’s chances, lies their scrumhalf Olivia Ortiz. The Junior Ortiz has been a major influence in the Panthers’ success thus far in their playoff run. Her nine-point scoring spree in a three-minute period against UConn was a major factor in their proceeding into the final. She hasn’t just been on a tear during the playoffs, she also led the team in scoring during the regular season, putting up 21 points per game. Teliczan was reluctant to single her performance out from the rest of the team, as it has been a team performance to get this far, but did concede she had been instrumental to their success.

Air Force knows to look out for Ortiz, Rusert mentioning, “They have a perennially strong pack and a real asset in their returning 9, but we’re anticipating great 15-woman rugby from both teams.” However, they know they have the talent to match, “We have great leadership from captain Sara
Cook (senior) and vice captains Sierra DeHart (sophomore) and Devin Doyle (junior) and we have a host of new and returning players who never cease to step into the gap and create great rugby.” As Rusert mentioned, Davenport plays great 15-women rugby and they Air Force, similarly, will need all of their players to be at the top of their game.

The key to this game for the Panthers according to Teliczan will be their defense and their ability to maintain possession.  A simple game plan, but one which will pay dividends if they are able to keep the ball away from the lethal speed of Air Force. On the other side of the field Air Force has used the phrase “Dance with who brought you” meaning, don’t stray away from what got you this far. They will look to remain structured and organized throughout the 80 minutes, if they can stick to their systems they should be in good standing.

Men’s D2:

Semifinal: UW Whitewater vs. Queens University:

Kickoff 10am EST, Saturday December 1 

Last year’s champions University of Wisconsin Whitewater will matchup on Saturday against a team that is treading uncharted water, Queen’s University of Charlotte. It is a matchup of the old guard and the new kids on the block. If Whitewater is successful this weekend it will mark their 4th National Championship. For Queens, their program has only been in existence for 22 months and this weekend marks their first appearance at in the national semifinals.

Both teams have a firm sense of belief as they prepare for the weekend, Queen’s is based off their team’s philosophy and ethos. Whitewater has based their belief off their attacking structures. Queen’s head coach Frank McKinney noted, “We really have some good assistant coaches on staff and players that have bought into our philosophy.  We also have very good captains that have set the tone in terms of how a varsity team is supposed to act and how the players train.” If McKinney’s players can keep true to their culture they will be hard to get by. According to Whitewater’s coach Matt Pederson it’s about being multifaceted, “We strive to achieve a balanced attack with the scrum and backs scoring equally.”

If the scouting reports are to be believed, the story of the game will come from the set pieces. Both McKinney and Pederson identified their opposition’s set piece performance as one of the key areas of the match. McKinney stating, “They are a very explosive team with a strong history.  I really think they have set the bar in D2 Rugby.  The will be big, fast and physical.  They will be strong in the scrums and lineouts.  They will also have speed at multiple positions.” The sentiment was echoed by Pederson, “They have solid lineouts, whether going to front or back pod.  They vary taking the ball off the top or bringing it to ground.  Their rucking is solid, producing clean ball for their backs.” Both teams also noted it will be a tug-of-war for the full 80 minutes with speed likely to play an impact in the waning moments of the game.

Whitewater’s performance will be boosted this weekend by the return of last year’s Championship game MVP, Robby Sindic. However, Pederson did also point out captain Levi Van Lanen and scrum captain, John Grams would serve vital roles in the outcome of the game. For Queens they are looking, similarly, to their captain Lebo Ngwenya. Ngwenya who has played Hooker internationally for Zimbabwe will be slotting in at flyhalf this weekend. Having such a commanding and physical presence in the middle of the field will be sure to ask questions of Whitewater and their defense.

Sticking to what they know and forcing the other team outside of their structures will be the key to success on Saturday for both teams. However, neither team is giving any thought to the championship match on Sunday until they know they’ve punched their ticket. McKinney has nothing but respect for Whitewater and won’t be looking passed them in a hurry, “We are facing the number 1 team in the country on Saturday.  Our main focus is on Saturday.  We have a young team and we have played multiple games to get to this point.  We are the only team in the final four that has played a play-in game.  We are taking or journey 1 game at a time.” Pederson will also have his team glued into Saturday and worry about Sunday later, “We are focused on Queens University, Saturday, at 10am.  Following that, we will watch the next match and generated some film in preparation for Sunday.”

The winner of this semifinal will advance to the Men’s D2 National Championship game, at 1pm ET on Sunday. They will face the winner of North Carolina vs. Iowa Central Community College.

Semifinal: North Carolina State vs. Iowa Central Community College:

Kickoff 12pm EST, Saturday December 1:

Two teams new to the semifinals this year are North Carolina State and Iowa Central Community College (ICCC). As a program ICCC is only three years old, and North Carolina in their own terms are coming out of a recent “rebirth”. With two, relatively, new programs reaching such a high level of competition this weekend will prove to be a pivotal one in terms of their development.

Each team has relied on different aspects of their game to carry them to this point of the season. For NC State it has been their ability to build the program over the last several years, coach Brian Ketchem explaining, “Our success stems from a combination of talented, experienced Seniors that have been able to help grow the program over the last few years and a crop of young players with youth rugby experience with programs in NC and elsewhere.”

For ICCC, it has been the resiliency they have developed from playing teams in the upper echelon of the collegiate rugby ranks, as their coach Brent Nelson explained, “I would say the reason for the success is the rigorous independent schedule we were forced to play. We scheduled D1AA and D1A programs during the regular season. I would also add that this team has really banded together. They got really close over the last 3 months and love each other.” 

Both coaches are filled with mutual respect for each other. They have both seen the other team play and are impressed with the tenacity they display. ICCC is impressed with the athleticism of the players in the NC State program and their “fire”; While NC State is impressed by the size and stature of the ICCC squad. For NC State it will be about using their pace and fitness to create gaps and make the ICCC players move around the field and ICCC will be focusing on minimizing mistakes to avoid allowing the ball to stay NC State’s hands for too long.

Part of NC State’s game plan this weekend will need be about accounting for ICCC’s stand out players, Mitch Coleman-Hardy and their Fly Half Rhys Smith who returns from injury this weekend. Nelson described Coleman-Hardy as a great leader and one who will be motivating the team around him, adding he is, “A wonderful young man and a damn good player”. While he may be looking to Coleman-Hardy to lead the team emotionally, Nelson will expect Smith to dictate play, “He has an accurate leg and leads our backfield. The boys got the job done without him but make no mistake…we’re better with him than without.” Ketchem firmly believes NC State’s success is a reflection of 1-15 on the field “We are a “whole team” type club in that we must come to play as a group to be successful and we must move the ball around the field to utilize every player’s strengths.  We don’t have one or two players that we rely on for success but we do have a number of talented position guys that do their job well.”  

Mentality will be the keys for both teams as they take to the field on Saturday. ICCC will look to just be themselves, stick to what got them here and believe in those around them. NC State will look to control the controllable. They won’t let the team, ref,
fans get in the way of accomplishing what they set out to do. 

Neither team is looking passed Saturday, they both have firmly planted their focus on their semifinal matchup. However, they do concede that they’ll need to look out of the corner of their eye every now and again to ensure they know what to expect if they advance through. It should be an intriguing matchup and one that will see its fair share of explosiveness on both sides of the ball.

The winner will advance to the National Championship match on Sunday at 1pm ET. They will play the winner of UW Whitewater and Queens University of Charlotte.

Women’s D2:

Semifinal: Winona State vs. University of Cincinnati:

Kickoff 2pm EST, Saturday December 1:

In the first rematch of last year’s Women’s Fall D2 semifinals, Winona State (the defending champions) will take on the University of Cincinnati. In last year’s encounter Winona State ran away with the game 46-12. It wasn’t indicative of how strong of a side Cincinnati is and this year they look for retribution.

At the heart of Cincinnati’s quest for redemption is a change of philosophy, they have shifted from playing for the social aspect of the game, to playing in order to be the best in the country. Forwards coach, Kayla Clossen noting, “At the beginning of the year we asked the girls, “Do you want to play fun, social rugby or do you want to be competitive?” They responded with competitive and so we adapted our coaching techniques and practices. We really worked on our fitness and technical aspects of the sport. The girls are returning wanting to win and so are the coaches.”  

For Winona, they are operating of the idea of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” This isn’t to suggest complacency or arrogance, rather it shows they have a system and a way of playing which they feel comfortable in and won them a championship last year. That system is all about sticking to the fundamentals. Winona’s coach, Josh Krzewinski noting the keys to a repeat will be, “Take care of the ball, win our set pieces, make our tackles and play as 15.  If we can disrupt our opponent and force them into making mistakes—capitalize on those opportunities.”

Neither team is expecting an easy match this weekend. Winona knows Cincinnati has vastly improved; Krzewinski noting, “Cincinnati will be a strong team.  We know they have improved tremendously since last year and it’s going to be a tight game.  We know they are hungry and have had some success the past two seasons, so we know we are in store for challenge.” Clossen admitting they’ll expect Winona to, “bring their best game. Their track record from the past speaks for them and we are sure it is going to be a very competitive game.”

Part of what will make this such a competitive affair will be the star players that each team possess. Winona will be looking for a complete performance from those starting to those on the bench; while Cincinnati, will be looking to their core seniors for inspiration. Klossen expanding, “We have several seniors that have grew with the team for 4-5 years that make the core of our team: Abby Lowman (Captain, #8), Justine Perl (Center), Sami Harrell (Lock), Jess Sang (Backline), and Madeline Conklin (Not a senior but she is 2nd-Captain, Fullback).” It will be those leaders who learned the tough lessons from last year’s experience that will really drive the team forward.

Defense lies at the heart of each team’s title aspirations. For Winona, it has been a point of emphasis all year, Krzewinski explained, “We talk about making the first tackle and not losing our defensive shape because we have to slide in and help.  That will be a major key for us.” Klossen offered a parallel analysis of the weekend, “We talk about making the first tackle and not losing our defensive shape because we have to slide in and help.  That will be a major key for us.” At this level, nothing can be taken for granted and both teams, are solely honed in on their Saturday fixture, they will take Sunday as it comes.

The winner of this match will advance to the Women’s D2 Championship match on Sunday at 3pm ET. They will play the winner of Vassar College vs. Coast Guard.

Semifinal: Vassar College vs. Coast Guard:

Kickoff 4pm EST, Saturday December 1:

Last year saw an evenly contested match on the field between Vassar College and Coast Guard, which was not reflected on the scoreboard. Vassar made out with an impressive victory, 36-22. This year expect the scoreline to be a stronger reflection of the parity between the two teams.

There is a strong sense of intimacy between these two sides, as this will mark the fourth consecutive year that they have faced each other in the playoffs, on all three prior occasions Vassar has been victorious. Despite, the impressive record Vassar isn’t showing any signs of complacency. “We know what they bring to the field and respect these players. They have some good open field runners and have performed consistently over the years,” said Vassar Head Coach Tony Brown. Coast Guard on the other hand are just happy to be back on the big stage according to their coach, Bill Anderson, “We commissioned 9 starting players and I don’t believe anyone thought we could get back here with that kind of turnover, but the new women have eagerly stepped up and are charting their own course.”

Both coaches believe in the team they have put together and believe that it will take the squad working in unison to come away with the spoils. Both teams have a distinctive structure and patterns which they stick to, and so long as they players stick to the structures they will be in a position to win. For Vassar, they use forward dominant play to advance the ball down the field. Developing a bruising mentality over the course of the 80 minutes. The physicality of their play and their ball retention rate tire the opposition and that’s when they bounce. Coast guard looks to their athleticism and fitness to fatigue teams and pull away in the closing passages of the game.

Basics will be the key to Vassar’s chances at success this weekend. Their game plan is not an advanced one, it is rather simple; but it is effective. Its effectiveness is predicated on getting the little things right and as they head into the encounter, all Brown is concerned about is “good basics”. For Coast Guard, they are focused more on what got them to this stage. They aren’t too concerned about worrying about what lies ahead of them, rather they are choosing to draw inspiration and belief from the games they have played this year. Anderson adding, “We must rely on all the experience that nine matches and all the practices have given us so far this year.” Both teams know they are in for a slog on Saturday and are purely focused on getting the result on day one before looking ahead to Sunday.

The winner of this match will advance to the Women’s D2 Championship match on Sunday at 3pm ET. They will play the winner of Winona State vs. Cincinnati.