Falcons, Highlanders humble in lead-up to DII National Championship

KENESSAW, Ga. – Notre Dame College and University of California – Riverside will kick off the 2015 USA Rugby College 15s National Championships at Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University Saturday, May 9, in the Women’s Division II Final.

It has been exactly five months to the day since Notre Dame College secured the Fall Championship in Palm Coast, Fla., whereas Riverside did not know if its season would be over or not this time two weeks ago.

In their third year of existence, the Falcons cruised to the Fall Championship with six shutouts and defeated 2013 DII National Champion Winona State in the title game. Only defending Division I National Champion Penn State was able to bring down Notre Dame College in one of the closest matches of the Nittany Lions’ season.

The Falcons split their spring season between 15s and sevens and have dealt with turnover, as several starters are not fit or have left the program since the Fall Championship. To add to Notre Dame College’s preparations, it is finals week in South Euclid, Ohio, though Head Coach Mark Andrade said the team is ready to relieve the stress with Championship-caliber rugby.

Andrade cited his team’s ability to wear down opponents as one reason for its successful season, which included matches against Davenport and 2014 National Champion Mary Washington. Props Patsy Ford and Najya Jordan lead the way from the front row with freshmen Leslie Velez, prop, and Shania Young, flanker, bringing youth and tenacity to the forwards.

Notre Dame College has had to shuffle players around the pitch this spring to find the perfect combination for a Championship run, but the Falcons will be wary of a Riverside team that is on a roll of its own.

“They have some very skilled players,” Andrade said. “Even with the different team that we have as compared to the fall, I’m still confident we can match up against them.”

Riverside Head Coach Roger Light believes the Falcons have the advantage, with the May 9 date marked on Notre Dame College’s calendar since December. It was around that time Riverside took a winter break, after which the girls returned to campus more fit and prepared to use the spring semester as a title-readying season.

The Highlanders are led by captain and flanker Alysia Jones on and off of the pitch, but receive contributions across the game-day 23. Full back Michelle Hong kicked two penalty goals in the final 10 minutes of the Spring Championship Final against Cal State – Northridge, including the last-minute match-winner after the Matadors took a 22-20 lead. Northridge had beaten Riverside earlier in the season.

It all happened so quickly for Light’s team. One moment the Highlanders are trailing in the Spring Championship and the next they are celebrating a berth in the DII National Championship.

“We weren’t planning on coming out to Georgia – we didn’t think it was a possibility,” the head coach said. “We were just happy to be in the playoffs and were just happy to beat Northridge, which was our season-end goal.”

Like Notre Dame College, Riverside is a young program. A few seniors, like Jones, Desarae Milan, Brenda Suman, and Lisa Umeh, were members of the inaugural team, and now will end their Highlander careers in the National Championship game. The Falcons, along with DI West Chester, pledged to Riverside’s GoFundMe account to get the Highlanders out to Kennesaw.

There will be no mercy on the pitch Saturday, however. Riverside is prepared to match the Falcons’ physicality, while Notre Dame College will have to contain playmakers Hong and fly half Desarea Malan.

“They are impressive and super mobile,” Light said of his team’s opponents. “For a team with their size and strength, they can get around the field and don’t seem to slow down.

“They are going to come out extremely hard and ready to go and potentially catch us on our heels.”

The Women’s Division II National Championship will be streamed live on USA Rugby TV at 10 a.m. ET Saturday. Tickets for the 2015 USA Rugby College 15s National Championships at Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University are still available from $20.

2015 USA Rugby College 15s National Championships | Schedule of Events

Women’s DII Final: Notre Dame College v UC Riverside – 10 a.m. ET on USA Rugby TV

Men’s D1AA Final: Central Florida v UC Davis – noon ET on USA Rugby TV

Women’s DI Final: Penn State v Central Washington – 2 p.m. ET on USA Rugby TV

Men’s D1A Final: Life v Saint Mary’s – 4 p.m. ET on ESPN 3

Central Washington hoping to end Penn State's DI dominance

KENNESAW, Ga. – Penn State can capture its fourth consecutive Women’s Division I National Championship and ninth overall Saturday, May 9, at the 2014 USA Rugby College 15s National Championships, but the Central Washington Wildcats are not making the cross-country trip to Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University to roll over for the Nittany Lions.

The star-studded affair begins on the touch line, with capped Women’s Eagles Kate Daley and Mel Denham leading the fall and spring champions, respectively. Eagle Kate Dowty is also a member of Denham’s coaching staff.

With the team’s season played in the fall, the competition for places in the match-day 23 has given Penn State a training environment capable of preparing the team for Saturday’s title game. The Nittany Lions played Northern Virginia and Philadelphia Women’s Rugby Football Club before foregoing their spring break to tour Spain and the south of France, where they played three matches.

Penn State defeated Norwich in the Fall Championship Final, the second time Daley’s squad downed the Cadets. Other than those two matches and the matchups with the aforementioned club sides, the Nittany Lions did not face much resistance from divisional opponents. In fact, the team took time to qualify for the College 7s National Championships and still managed to stay unbeaten in the spring.

“We’re better at some things now than we were in the fall when we beat Norwich,” Daley said.

The Nittany Lions have Eagles full back Meya Bizer and prop Hope Rogers healthy and ready for another title, but the entire team offers an attacking threat at each position. Daley highlighted Lauren Shissler as one of the best centers in collegiate rugby, a claim that may be challenged by the back line of Central Washington.

Denham joined the Wildcat program days after taking American International College to the 2014 Finals in Stanford, Calif. Though a few Yellow Jackets followed their coach to the northwest, Central Washington had its own crop of talent that has grown with the infusion of varsity status in Ellensburg, Wash.

“All of the girls want to get better, and that’s created a steep learning curve and improvement,” Denham said.

With several All-Americans on the roster, the Wildcats are not starved for talent, shown in patient displays against Life and Brigham Young University at the Spring Championships in Pittsburgh. The team has also scored more than 900 points this season.

Lining up against Penn State’s Shissler is Asinate Serevi. Though she carries the name of father and Fijian rugby legend Waisale Serevi, the Central Washington center is making a name for herself. At five-foot-11, Serevi is the tallest of the Wildcats’ backs and provides an intimidating presence alongside five-foot-three Fina Toetu’u, a fellow All-American.

In the Spring Championships Final against BYU, the Wildcats succumbed to a 15-0 deficit after Serevi was shown a yellow card in the fourth minute. When she returned to the pitch, she initiated the comeback with a try. Central Washington used the calming presence of the freshman to keep the Cougars scoreless for 50 minutes and move the ball away from the opposition’s forwards.

“We have an extremely well-rounded attack,” Denham said. “We’re balanced and that’s our trademark. We can attack anywhere on the field.”

The Wildcats will have their work cut out for them against Penn State, which has set the standard of success for college programs across the country. The Nittany Lions have played in the Women’s Division I National Championship Final in each of the last 10 years, losing thrice to Stanford and once to Army.

Central Washington, in its first year in DI, becomes just the fifth team to break into the Final since 2005.

“Penn State has been a dominant force in rugby for several years, and our vision has been to create a new brand of rugby and set a new standard – one that can compete with Penn State,” Denham said.

“They are similar to us in that they have a well-rounded team. Their forwards are physical and they can play multiple-phase attack. We’re going to have to make sure our work rate is where we want to be, and we’ll have to identify what they are trying to do on attack and shut it down.”

Saturday’s match at Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University will be streamed live on USA Rugby TV from 2 p.m. ET. Tickets, which include entry to all four matches at the 2015 USA Rugby College 15s National Championships, are still available starting at $20.

2015 USA Rugby College 15s National Championships | Schedule of Events

Women’s DII Final: Notre Dame College v UC Riverside – 10 a.m. ET on USA Rugby TV

Men’s D1AA Final: Central Florida v UC Davis – noon ET on USA Rugby TV

Women’s DI Final: Penn State v Central Washington – 2 p.m. ET on USA Rugby TV

Men’s D1A Final: Life v Saint Mary’s – 4 p.m. ET on ESPN 3