Championship Preview: Air Force, Connecticut rematch highlight of fall seasons

GREENVILLE, S.C. – Air Force Academy has waited a full calendar year of rugby to gain some form of redemption over University of Connecticut for the 2015 USA Rugby Women’s Division I College Fall Championship result at Furman University.

The cadets have gone up against some of the best programs in the country in addition to an ever-improving Rocky Mountain slate of opponents, and will face their toughest challenge of the year against the reigning champion Huskies. The 2016 DI Fall Championship Final will kick off Sunday, Dec. 4, at 11 a.m. ET on The Rugby Channel.

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A year ago, Connecticut walked off of John Roberts Field with trophy in hand having beaten Air Force, 19-12, with a flurry of a final 15 minutes barely separating the two sides. Air Force had the ball close to the try line in the dying moments of that game, but the penalty trouble that plagued the preceding 79 minutes reared its head on the final possession.

As Head Coach Amy Rusert said ahead of her team’s sweep of the West Regional playoff weekend in Cincinnati, there is more to be learned from a loss than a win. The cadets knew they needed to clean up their game if they were to revisit the Fall Championship, where two players were sent to the bin and dozens of whistles were blown the way of Air Force over 80 minutes. University of Colorado and Colorado State University provided unique tests in league play while 2015 Women’s D1 Elite runner-up Brigham Young University and the service academies of Army and Navy offered out-of-conference matchups that would raise the difficulty level of any collegiate program’s schedule.

So when the Quarterfinal and Semifinal weekend rolled around out at Brimelow Fields, Air Force only had to polish the work it had put in all season to secure a championship berth. Rusert’s group had to battle off-field adversity first, however, with about half of the team stranded nearly 500 miles away in Atlanta ahead of a busy holiday week.

“We rapidly shifted gears at about three o’clock in the morning Saturday and had a slew of different lineups ready to go for any eventuality,” Rusert said in dealing with the travel delays. “Our objectives were different – it was ‘next woman up’ if we didn’t have key players available. We also wanted to monitor fatigue and energy levels.”

Compounding the frustrating travel scenarios was the fact Air Force was looking to play two matches on the weekend. Luckily every member of the 25-player squad arrived one way or another in Ohio, and Rusert was able to utilize two different 23-player game-day squads fully in wins over University of Minnesota in the Semifinal and Texas A&M University in the Quarterfinal.

The only remaining problems the cadets could face on the way to the Fall Championship will be put forth by Connecticut, which had its own battle to get to South Carolina.

While it is normal for teams to play opposition twice in a year – be it a home-and-away series or regular-season and postseason matchups – it is less likely to see the same team three times in a season. The Huskies, who had to deal with a play-in round matchup with Princeton University before confirming their travel plans to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for the East Regional playoffs, went blow for blow with a Notre Dame University program that lost just one match in Big 10 play – to Pennsylvania State University. Then Boston College University won a less evenly-matched Quarterfinal at the expense of University of Northern Iowa to set up its third game of the year against the Huskies.

The teams entered the Semifinal with clean slates, each having taken a win from the matchup this fall.

“Boston’s probably the best team around at the moment with their particular skill sets and a very good back division – very fast,” Connecticut Head Coach Mark Jordan said. “The exception is we know how they play. They’ve averaged somewhere in the region of 60 points a match, and we played them three times and they only scored 30 points.

“Anybody else and they would have destroyed. We’re a very good defensive team and we restricted their runners and adjusted our defense accordingly.”

It went down to the wire, but Connecticut came out of the Semifinal on top, 14-7. Now the Huskies can focus on the defense of their title, though they no longer have six of the student-athletes that won it.

“We lost a few of the decision-makers from last year, which is unfortunate,” Jordan said. “But other people have stepped up. We have a very balanced team; we score tries one through 15.”

Air Force cannot count on Connecticut being stuck in the style of play best suited for the northeast opponents, as the Huskies have a strong forward pack that is sure to make as many tackles behind the gain line as it can against any opponent. Going forward, no one player will have a target on her back.

“The strength of the squad is what UConn’s all about,” Jordan said. “It is a big family; they’re very tight knit and that’s how they play rugby. They do look after each other and complement each other.

“Air Force knows we have very powerful forwards who like taking the ball. They’re all ball-carriers.”

The cadets may not call their motivation for usurping Connecticut on the Fall Championship throne redemption, but the title is the carrot at the end of the stick for Air Force’s fall. When they return to Colorado Springs, Colo., they will want to have something to add to the trophy cabinet to continue the upward trend of rugby in the region.

“Our high school girls come out and support, and I think it gives them something to aspire to,” Rusert said in regards to the community support. “They’re used to local programs advancing to the national stage. It’s nice to keep the Springs on the map at all levels of the game.

“We don’t think in terms of playing UConn as much as we do going to Furman and having a better performance than we had last year. It’ll be fun to face them again, but we’re less focused on the matchup and more focused on it being our season’s crescendo. We’re always swinging above our weight and value taking on teams that we know are going to be a huge challenge, and we see that as a huge asset to the program.”

The Zoomies of D1A Rugby trained with their female counterparts this week in preparation for Sunday’s Fall Championship Final. The championship weekend in Greenville will be broadcast live on The Rugby Channel, including the DI Fall Championship Final Sunday, Dec. 4, at 11 a.m. ET.