Minnesota-Duluth returns to the DII Final Four for the second time in eight months this weekend, where they’ll face Wisconsin-Whitewater in the National semifinals. (Watch live here.) Duluth beat Whitewater, the 2011 National Champions, 43-17 in the quarterfinals in the spring.
“They’re a big team, obviously. Real strong in the pack,” said Duluth coach Jeramy Katchuba of the Warhawks. “I think last year we matched up well because we could contend with their pack a little bit, so that was helpful for us. But definitely trying to slow their big boys down.”
When you ask anyone about either Duluth or Whitewater, usually the response is some variation of, 'they’re big'.
“They are massive, but they are fit. That’s what I remember – big solid guys able to move around for 80 minutes at pace, so our goal is going to be to stop them at the ruck,” said Whitewater coach Pat O’Connor of the Fighting Penguins.
“We’ve got to tackle, take control of those rucks, reverse momentum and then go down and score. I think we’ve got the backline to run with them. We’ve got the scrum that’s going to match up with them.”
One of the big players for Whitewater, both literally and figuratively, is second row Ben Landry. At 6-4, he was a center last season, but has moved to the pack this year. So he’ll provide some mobility in the Warhawk forwards, as well as leadership.
“He just provides that calming effect in the scrum, elevates everybody’s game, which is a nice feature,” said O’Connor. “He’s not one of those guys who tries to do everything himself. He’s the guy who makes sure everybody’s pulling their weight in the scrum, and that’s one of the things that’s made a real difference.”
Also important for Whitewater are flanker Brian Heim, a 2013 RUGBYMag DII All American and one of three remaining Warhawks from the National Championship squad, and wing Matt Drzewiecki.
“He had an outstanding series from our conference finals through the rounds of 16 and eight,” said O’Connor of Drzewiecki. “He scored four tries against Towson, so we’re expecting great things out of him.”
Duluth lost one of its two RUGBYMag All American props from the spring, and one starting wing, but nothing else. Derek Van Kline, a RUGBYMag All American at flanker last season, was injured almost all fall. He returned, playing prop, for the last game of the regular season and now has three matches under his belt.
Inside center Logan Hansen and flyhalf Trace Bolstad are play makers who’ll have to go well for Duluth to advance to Sunday’s final, too, but maybe no player is more paramount to the Penguins’ success than No. 8 Jake Luetgers.
“Obviously, he’s one of the more skilled players across the country, so we need him to play well,” said Katchuba. “But if we don’t put in a full team effort we’ll be watching on Sunday.”
Both Whitewater and Duluth are undefeated this fall. Whitewater’s last loss was to Duluth in the spring, and Duluth’s was to Salisbury in the National Championship Game. Don’t expect either team to deviate far from the styles of play that have got them this far.
“I think it’s still a pretty traditional UW-Whitewater team,” said O’Connor of his squad. “We’ve always tried to be able to attack and score from both the backs and the scrum, have a balanced approach, and I think we’re maintaining that.”
“The fringe attack is still our bread and butter, and at any level you see that you go with what your strength is,” said Katchuba.
“I think this year we have a few more skilled players that can help us change it up if we need to, but I also told our guys don’t read into too much. We do have a simple game plan, but it’s highly effective. We lost to a very good team [in Salisbury] that was able to stop that. We’re still going to go with that, and if a team starts to stop that we have other plans that we can do as well.”
Whitewater got its National Championship in 2011, so the Warhawks are seeking their second title in three years (four seasons), while Duluth is still reeling from missing out on the hardware in the spring.
“We made it to the Championship Game last year, but at the end of the day we lost. That was a long, long bus ride home, which has given the guys a lot of incentive to put out of their heads that they’re any good right now,” said Katchuba.
“We talk about it every day. Big motivator. You take every weekend game by game, but you can use that as some incentive when you’re slipping up in practices or not performing at the level you should be in games.”