Auburndale, Fla., plays host to the inaugural American Collegiate Rugby Association (ACRA) championships. The top four DI and DII women’s colleges will convene this weekend and christen the new league’s record books. The DI semifinalists are all familiar names, but this Final Four appearance will mark one program’s high-water mark.
Northern Iowa has dominated DI Midwest rugby in recent memory, but the Panthers have only breached the Elite 8 twice: lost to UC Davis in 2005 and BYU in 2009.
“This is the best we’ve ever had, for the simple fact that there’s no drop-off from one to 22,” Northern Iowa coach Steve Murra said. “We’ve had better rugby players in certain positions, but haven’t been this good top to bottom.”
UNI is veteran heavy, with six of seven seniors starting (two are five-years) and a bevy of Midwest U23 tour-goers and MW U19s ratcheting up the experience. Captains Megan Flanigan (inside center), Crystal Nye (flanker) and Becca Brown (No. 8) will anchor the squad.
UNI will have to regroup once this class graduates, but the program is in better shape than years prior. The rugby team was recently reclassified under “athletics” from “club sports” and that has opened up the program to trainers, varsity facilities and other support and amenities that help teams operate more professionally. Evolutions like that have already helped recruitment.
“Freshman Eileen Lieb, a flanker, is someone to watch,” Murra said of the Catholic Memorial High School (Wisc.) graduate and the type of difference-maker he wants to attract. “I saw her at last year’s high school nationals, and she was the MVP of the game we watched. I met her parents on the sidelines, chatted with them and got her to come to us.
“She’s the last of 15 kids, so we already knew a couple of things before meeting her,” Murra added. “Her family is basically a rugby team. She knows about sacrifice, hard work, those sorts of things. … She’s a little kid with a lot of fire and had to fight her way onto the field. … I see her as a future leader.”
Olivia Frey was another important recruit for Murra. The prop captained Armstrong, Minnesota’s best high school team, at the high school nationals. She was to make her debut this fall but suffered an injury during the summer, keeping her off the field.
Injuries have ruled out a couple of key players from playing this season, but personnel has not been UNI’s biggest barrier this year; competition has. Even through the Elite 8, the Panthers went unchallenged as they toppled Kent State 83-7 then Air Force 51-0.
“There were no surprises in the playoffs,” Murra said. “I know so many of these kids and coaches. It’s not necessarily easy to prepare, but you get stuck in a rut and expect the same things. Our best game was against Air Force (in the Round of 8). I don’t want to say we played a perfect game, but we played a pretty good game. ... I wish we would have played tighter games, especially when I look at the East Coast – Norwich, Navy and Army all played tighter games."
Murra has done his best to prepare his team for Norwich in the semifinals. The UNI men’s team has joined the women’s team at their indoor practices and played the role of the Cadets during sessions. The coaching staff has watched a lot of video and gone out of their way to gather information on Norwich. Murra is finalizing their game plan tonight and will disseminate a 3-4 page document detailing as much to the team.
UNI heads into the final rounds of playoffs prepared, confident, and equally as important, healthy.
“Win or lose Saturday, we want the kids to be at their best physically,” Murra said. “We want them healthy, so we can put the best product out on the field.”
The Panthers will need to be at their best as they take on the top-ranked team in the league. The games kick off at 9 a.m. EST, and RugbyMag.com will be broadcasting the games live via its YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/RUGBYMagazine1
Certainly one of the shockers of the season, American International College nearly knocked off Norwich University during ACRA’s DI college playoffs last weekend. The forerunner for the DI title, the Cadets held off the Yellow Jackets to a 19-15 victory during yesterday’s quarterfinals and – just barely – qualified for the national semifinals on Dec. 7 in Auburndale, Fla.
The two teams had met during the regular season, with Norwich prevailing 39-19. The 20-point loss turned heads AIC’s way, however, as that scoreline was Norwich’s most competitive all season, even better than Army’s. The rematch unfurled on Sunday, after Norwich first defeated Syracuse 70-20, and AIC bettered Brown 34-0 in Saturday’s Round of 16. Norwich was able to rest its starters a bit more, having built a 51-0 halftime lead and emptying the bench in the second stanza. AIC isn’t as deep, and nine of its starters are freshmen (although Cassidy Meyers and Megan Pinson can hardly be considered untested). AIC also has one of the most prolific college players in the game right now: Jess Davis.
Initially, it appeared that Norwich was going to exert its will on AIC, as fullback Rose Bernheim scored two minutes into the game and flyhalf Hannah Bell’s conversion gave the Cadets a 7-0 lead. Fewer than three minutes later, sophomore center Ally Day scored, and Norwich was up 12-0.
AIC gathered itself, and at the 18th minute mark was finally rewarded with a Davis try. The rest of the half went silent in terms of the scoreboard, but the Eagle prop struck again two minutes in the second half, 12-10 to Norwich.
“We knew that Norwich had strong runners, which they like to utilize by keeping the field spread and moving the ball across it with a wide passing game and support,” Denham delved into AIC’s game strategy. “Those wide passes are actually difficult to make in general though, and even more difficult under pressure. Knowing that, we put up a lot of defensive pressure, preventing them from being able to move the ball wide and forcing a lot of knock-ons.”
The game-winning points came in the 48th minute, when Norwich scrumhalf Emily Oor ran in Norwich’s third try, which Bell converted for the 19-10 lead. Five minutes later, AIC closed the gap to four points, as Domonique Cammock scored the Yellow Jackets’ third try, 19-15.
The ball game was far from over, and AIC dominated the rest of the game in terms of possession and territory. Norwich, however, was unflappable on defense and repelled AIC’s attempts at the line. Norwich’s collective experience – and therefore, composure – in these intense, higher-level games outweighed AIC’s, and that made a difference in the end.
“What is a little frustrating for us is that while we managed to dominate possession [68% AIC - 32%NU], our young side may have perhaps lacked the critical decision-making skills that come in time with experience to be able put down a few more tries,” Denham said. “We also had a couple of instances where we executed out attacking pattern beautifully, found the mismatch, but then our handling skills let us down at the finish, meters out from the try zone. These instances alone would have put our point count on the winning end, and that is extremely frustrating.”
The game's outcome was frustrating, but Denham and team are pretty excited about their accomplishments this fall.
“It was a heartbreaker for sure,” Denham said. “Despite the score, the inside story of the game is so promising for AIC and very impressive for such a young group coming together in such a short period of time. I am really proud of what the girls have accomplished this season. … We are already looking at what we do next, and where things went wrong - those critical decisions. We are using this game as a massive opportunity for learning and growth.”
Norwich, Army, Navy and Northern Iowa are still in the hunt for the first-ever DI ACRA title and will sort it all out on Dec. 7-8. The seeds have yet to be released, so the semifinal match-ups are presently unknown. Norwich will be very busy in the interim, as the two-time defending 7s champion has taken an at-large bid to nationals this weekend (Nov. 23-24).
Third time's a charm? Winona State will have the chance to find out, as the two-time national finalist has secured its third-straight trip to the DII women's college semifinals. This year Winona is competing in ACRA and banked two playoff wins against Nebraska (46-15) and Colorado Mesa University (70-0) last weekend.
The weekend began with one of the Black Katts’ most difficult opponents this year, and Nebraska threatened to score during the opening 10 minutes of the teams’ Round of 16 match. But once Winona returned the pressure, the Black Katts drove in a lineout so Holly Vassar could dot down, 5-0.
Winona scored 29 points in the first half, as Lindsay Bucki (2), Holly Edelburg and Caitlin Courtney scored the tries, and Katie Dries and Holly Zimmer handled the extras. But the lasting impression was one of penalties. By game’s end, Winona committed 21 infractions, and that lack of discipline helped Nebraska close the points differential later in the game.
That said, Winona did well to create opportunities, wheeling scrums and punishing Nebraska for mistakes – like the errant clearing kick into the try zone, helping set up a long backline drive that ended with Bucki’s second try. Nebraska wasn’t as lucky but did run in one of their three tries in the first stanza, crashing through the middle for the five points.
Up 29-5 in the second half, Winona continued to hurt itself – not straight into the scrum, not releasing, offsides in the ruck, intentional knocking forward in the lineout. Finally, after a painful 12 minutes, Courtney broke the spell with a great individual try, which Zimmer converted, 36-5.
Nebraska then launched into its most inspiring play of the day, running in a try after a cascading series of Winona penalties and then negating a barreling run from Kourtney Kavajecz to take another penalty through the middle for the team’s third try, 36-15.
Three converted tries separated the opponents at this point, but Winona legged out the final minutes of the game and sent Emilee Burkhalter and Georgia Porter across for tries, 46-15.
As Winona looked ahead to the quarterfinals against Colorado Mesa, which had defeated Mankato State 38-27 in the Round of 16, the team was more concerned about bettering their performance than the strength of their opponent.
“The areas we did not perform well in yesterday were addressed, and the girls cleaned it up today,” Winona assistant coach Josh Krzewinski said after the 70-0 victory. “Tackling was a main focus, and we were able to stop Mesa’s pick-and-go game. Our forwards controlled the rucks very well, allowing for clean ball out to the backs.”
Sunday’s match saw Winona return to form, as the forwards devastated around the breakdown, and the backs capitalized on the space that was afforded. The pack did an excellent job of retaining their own kickoffs, and Courtney led the backs’ effort with four tries. The scoring moved around, however, as eight players (Kathryn Zahn, Tori Langhans, Bucki, Courtney, Nadia Nassif, Lanoria Duhart, Ashley Pomeroy and Edelburg) scored tries, and Zimmer tacked on 15 points with six conversions and a penalty.
Winona has a considerable advantage heading into the final four, having competed at this level during the previous two national championships. The Black Katts will face Kutztown University in their semifinal, while Vassar College and Notre Dame College duke it out on the other side of bracket. The championship will resume on Dec. 7-8 in Auburndale, Fla.
Check here for all of the DII ACRA playoff results.
This weekend is a big one for the new American College Rugby Association (ACRA). While the DII women’s colleges got into their Round of 32 last weekend, both the DI and DII teams will contest their rounds of 16 Saturday and quarterfinals Sunday.
The DI brackets were confirmed recently and reflect some flexibility in terms of eligible teams. Half of the Northeast conference is heading to playoffs: Norwich, Army, Quinnipiac, American International College, Boston University and UConn. And the former Midwest is sending three teams: Northern Iowa, Minnesota and Kent State (Mid-America conference champion). These two regions ground ACRA, so there was no dispute as to whether their league seasons and standings would feed into the playoffs.
That left seven spots to fill. The Ivy League was to contribute three teams to ACRA playoffs, but the entire conference was not on board. Ivy champion Harvard is taking its automatic bid to USA Rugby’s Round of 16 in the spring. Princeton (#4) and Cornell (#5) – which was slated to participate until a couple of days ago – are also not participating. Ivy runner-up Dartmouth will take the top conference seed to ACRA playoffs, and Brown, which finished third, will take the second seed. Penn will be the third Ivy rep in the post-season.
There was some confusion when SUNY Geneseo took the Empire’s top seed to ACRA’s DII playoffs, as conference mate Buffalo (a 2013 DII national semifinalist) had gone undefeated throughout league. Turns out that both Buffalo and Syracuse took at-large bids to ACRA's DI playoffs. Both are former DI programs that were re-categorized as DII when the country was carved up into college conferences. There was mutual distaste for DI teams playing in a DII league, so these at-large bids to ACRA's DI playoffs suit both parties. The only issue is that Syracuse finished fourth in Empire - behind DII schools Geneseo and Ithaca - so their inclusion in a DI playoff is questionable to say the least.
At-large bids also went to Air Force and Navy. Both compete in conferences that are not aligned with ACRA. The Mason-Dixon conference was informed mid-season that Navy was applying for an ACRA bid, and their conference standings had to be reworked as all of the Navy matches were stricken from the records. Air Force was a surprise addition as well and joins the Midwest portion of playoffs.
"Last year there was some discussion of the PMRC [Pacific Mountain Rugby Conference] East joining ACRA, due to our spring weather conditions,” Air Force Academy coach Lisa Rosen said. “The Air Force Academy pitch sits at about 6,500 ft., right against the mountains, and gets a ton of snow in the spring. Last year we had a league match and playoff matches scheduled before we could even practice outside, so a fall 15s competition makes a lot of sense for us. As it turned out, the rest of the league decided not to make the move this year, but to reassess next year.
“I was contacted by Amy Rusert, who runs the DII [ACRA] competition, and she suggested that we reach out to ACRA and apply for an At Large seed,” Rosen explained. “After discussing it with the team, we decided we would like to give it a try. We are still playing our USAR D1 matches, though we've had to do some rescheduling due to the government shutdown, but in the long term we would like to focus on spring 7s and fall 15s. It just makes sense for us given the spring weather in Colorado.”
Rosen’s explanation for her team’s inclusion was one of the motivators for ACRA’s creation: prohibitive spring weather. And Air Force’s take on the new league is one mimicked by many schools around the country. Teams want to see if ACRA is going to succeed first, before throwing their collective weight behind it. Half of the ACRA Round of 16 is legitimate – teams progressed through conference leagues and championships to earn bids to playoffs. The other half is a bit piecemeal, as whole conferences didn’t commit to ACRA or stand-alone teams requested inclusion. This process, though not ideal, was necessary for year one, and if all goes well through the championships, then expect ACRA to have a more dedicated following next year.
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