The field has narrowed down to eight, and by Sunday afternoon, only two DI women’s clubs will still be in the running for the national title.
USA Rugby had wrestled with an appropriate playoff structure since the formation of the Women’s Premier League, and after two years of giving the top four ranked teams a bye through the round of 16, 2011 marks the first year that the tournament will begin with quarterfinals.
One benefit is the uptick in competitiveness right from the get-go. Below are the quarterfinal matchups and a prediction on each:
ORSU v North Shore
The issue for ORSU was always going to be numbers, and the effect was felt during the former WPL team’s final league match against Belmont Shore, a game that ORSU won 10-6 in the waning moments.
“We are traveling a little lighter than we had hoped with 19,” ORSU coach Jarred Power said, “but we have a good core of players motivated to get the job done. The couple weeks off and close match with Belmont has helped us refocus.”
Where ORSU is looking to rebound, Chicago North Shore is trying to keep its positive momentum going forward. After starting the season 0-2, last year’s third-place team rallied with a 4-0 streak to finish third in CR2.
“The team is feeling pretty good,” North Shore’s Jenny Lui said. “We're traveling with a full squad and everyone's excited to play.”
Since North Shore’s success evolved later in the season, it’ll be interesting to see whether the squad can put a full 80 minutes of rugby together yet. Lui said the past few weeks of practice have geared toward shoring up the defense and point of contact.
“ORSU is a tough team with some experienced players,” Lui continued. “We're going to have to play aggressively as one collective unit and take care of the ‘baby.’ We've had chunks of good rugby all season, but now is the time for everything to come together and click.”
We’re looking forward to a showdown between some of the game’s most well know players, mainly ORSU’s Beckett Royce and San Juanita Moreno against North Shore’s Pam Kosanke and Teena Mastrangelo.
While it’s a tough call, we’re giving the slight edge to ORSU. Regardless, a physical game will ensue and the shallow Oregon squad will certainly feel the effects on day two.
NOVA v Seattle
The winner of the aforementioned matchup will play the winner of NOVA v Seattle. This is the third consecutive meeting of the two teams, with both owning a 1-1 record. In 2009, NOVA won by two points in the semis; in 2010, Seattle won 17-5 in the quarterfinals.
“Each time it has been a tough, tightly contested match, and I don't expect this one to be any different,” NOVA coach Brian Walker said. “I'm sure they will be prepared and ready to play hard just like we are. I have a huge amount of respect for their program. Seattle is very good at capitalizing on mistakes. We made too many last year and we paid for it. For us to be successful, we need to make smart decisions, play good defense, and execute cleanly in attack.”
Walker feels his side is better prepared for this meeting, as quality depth has hampered the team in years past.
“We have more than 15 capable starters, which is critical in a tournament format like this,” Walker said. “That depth has let us try out different combinations in our lineups all year, and has let us slot in effectively in the event of players being unavailable for certain matches. Our success this year has been because of the emphasis on balanced team play, and not a star system. Some weeks that success has been in the forwards and other weeks it has been in the backs.”
Kaitlin Joerger, Rachel Warden and Rose Daley have all been routinely mentioned as stalwarts in the forwards, while veterans Lauren Hoeck and Amber Benlian have anchored the backline. UVA grad Erica Cavanaugh has been a nice addition to NOVA’s outside attack as well.
Seattle is looking just as strong as last year, with their lone league loss coming at the hands of ORSU (24-10). The Breakers will be no easy opponent for NOVA, especially behind the leadership of scrumhalf Carrie White and standouts like Megan Sanders, wing Brianna Osetinsky and flanker Alison Miller.
Even though it’s a difficult choice, this match goes to NOVA. Last year’s game occurred on day two of the first round; Seattle had a bye through the first round, while NOVA had to play to advance. That said, the tables are pretty even.
In the other pool, the games are slightly easier to predict – not that they won’t be hotly contested.
Glendale v Belmont Shore
The toast of the season has been the Glendale. The Raptors have not advanced beyond the quarterfinals the last two years, but in 2011, they have a very good shot at the final.
Glendale cruised through league season, but the one downside to that dominance is a lack of time spent on defense.
“We've been spending a good amount of time on defense the last few weeks, and hope to see improvement in the areas we targeted,” Glendale coach Lisa Rosen said. “We've also spent time improving our support play. We know that the line breaks will be much harder to come by this weekend so we want to convert as much as we can into points.”
Despite some soft-tissue injuries, the team will be traveling with its full squad, a roster that lists familiar names like Jill Potter, Kitt Wagner, Hannah Stolba and Tyra McGrady. And those are only the names with national team experience. Glendale has ridiculous depth, which will greatly aid their success on Sunday.
“As far as advancing to final four and beyond, that is certainly our aspiration,” Rosen said. “The team is focused and eager for the next challenge. Belmont however will have something to say about whether we advance. The Raptors have not faced them before and given Belmont's recent performance against ORSU we will not be taking anything for granted. We are all excited to play a new opponent and expect a great match.”
Belmont’s win over ORSU was certainly impressive; however, it was mildly suspect given that ORSU traveled extremely lightly and had already locked up a seed at nationals. Takes nothing away from the Landsharks, but they should be outclassed on Saturday.
Atlanta v Austin
In all likelihood, the tournament will see a Glendale v Atlanta semifinal. The Harlequins narrowly lost to San Diego last year in the final, and that has near-loss has fueled a massive fall season for the undefeated Georgian team. Austin has done well in league, but dropped games to Glendale and Chicago North Shore.
“Preparations have gone well, the team is ready to just get out there and play,” Atlanta coach Jason Payne said. “We've spend the past two weeks building on the fundamentals and positional depth, not a lot of specific discussions in regards to our opponents. The key for us, as it has been all season, is to keep building on the basics of our attack and defense, keep growing as individual players and trusting each other as a team.”
As much as Payne and players haven’t been focusing on opponents, they know of Austin’s large, aggressive pack, as well as their firepower in the backs, especially their speedy back three. Austin also has the advantage of playing at home and will certainly look to impress their local fans.
“In regards to Sunday's match-up, we haven't put much thought into it yet,” Payne said. “I know Glendale are favorites in their match and are a very solid squad all around, but at this point all that matters is how we come out playing against Austin. I'm sure Belmont will not be bowing down to Glendale, and any of the other matches could go either way as well.”
It’s going to be a very exciting weekend of rugby, and no matchup is a given.
“The overall strength of the D1 teams at this tournament is the best it has been since the WPL split,” Walker opined. “It’s reflected in the number of WPL players who have chosen to return to D1 programs this year, and I've been very pleased to see the success that San Diego has had since moving up to the WPL. This weekend is going to see a lot of great games, and as a fan of the game as well as being a coach I can't wait to see what happens in the other matches.”
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