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