In two days' time, the Women's DII College National Championships will be underway in Kissimmee, Fla., and San Diego. By Sunday evening, we'll know the final four heading to Pittsburgh. Let's take a look at the pools and see who has the best shot at a round-one victory.
Pools A and B contest their playoff matches in sunny San Diego, where perfect rugby conditions (high 60s - low 70s) await teams. In pool A, top Pacific Coast seed Western Washington takes on local Claremont Colleges, which holds the #16 seed for Southern California. The Flames are on the top of their game, having beat defending national champion Washington State 31-20 a couple of weekends ago in the Pacific Coast Championship, while Claremont pulled off an 18-10 barn burner against CSU Fullerton on Sunday for the league clincher. The Foxes have advanced to nationals six of the last eight years, and definitely have an experience advantage over WWU, which has never represented the Pacific Coast. But Claremont has only advanced beyond the
Round of 16 once (2008) in all those trips and is the underdog against the top-ranked team.
In the other Pool A matchup, the South's Lee University returns to the Big Show as the #1 seed now that East Carolina is in DI, and will face MARFU's #2 seed George Washington. It's difficult to pick a favorite here but relying on the relative strength of the unions, we're leaning toward GW. The Colonials had to beat quality teams in La Salle and 2010 national finalist Temple before advancing to the MARFU championship against Shippensburg (29-0 loss). Lee has got some great leadership in former age-grade Eagle Candace Barley, and the No. 8's expertise from the base of the scrum has seen the team to great success, but will be tested against the historically stronger MARFU team. A good game will ensue, and whoever wins will have the unfortunate task of playing Western Washington on Sunday, and the Flames are favored over either round-one victor.
In Pool B, there are three newbies to nationals in Notre Dame, Mesa State and Santa Clara. The fourth team is former DII champion Shippensburg, whose back-to-back titles in 2008 and 2009 gives them a huge advantage over pool B’s rookies. The team has been itching to get back to playoffs after a trying season in division one, and followed its MARFU championship with a 24-17 win over William & Mary last weekend. Even though W&M is a solid team, the score is a bit deceiving in that the A side scored its 24 points in the first half before the B side took over in the second.
It’s Santa Clara’s task to derail Shippensburg’s return run to the title, and the Pacific Coast's #3 seed is no pushover. In the Pac Coast semifinals, SCU gave Washington State a run for its money, playing a very clean, disciplined game that made WSU work for its 27-15 victory. SCU is on the small size and might have some trouble with Ship's mobile attacking forwards who pair nicely with its smart backs, so we're giving this one to Shippensburg, though it won't be an easy win.
Notre Dame vs Mesa State is a trickier call. Both teams came out of nowhere in their first-ever league seasons to qualify for nationals. Notre Dame finished second in the Midwest, defeating Winona 17-3 in the semifinals and losing to UW La Crosse 35-0 in the fall. Although the Fighting Irish were impressively athletic, they're still suffering from low numbers typical of new clubs. They travel light and that will definitely hamper them, especially against a big Mesa State team. The latter ended its regular season this spring in a three-way tie with Colorado College and Wyoming in ERRFU's competitive competition and advanced to Westerns on points. Once at regionals, MSC upset Wayne State 5-0 in the semifinals before eliminating Texas 20-8 in the final.
"We have regrouped and worked on basics and tried to have some fun," Mesa coach Victor Bellavia said in the interim between Westerns and nationals. "I want the girls to remember why they started this club in the first place: to have fun and win. I don't want them to ever forget about the fun part of rugby.
"I think we are pretty evenly matched, but we will have the edge on them," Bellavia said of his team's first-round opponent. "We have had a lot of girls step up the last two weeks and really take control of their game and teammates. The mood is positively optimistic."
The two newbies should have a positive first experience at nationals given their similar handicaps, but we're giving the nod to Mesa State as they've had a better build-up than Notre Dame's pre-season, which consisted of three games (2-1).
So right now, we're predicting a Western Washington v George Washington quarterfinal in pool A, and a Shippensburg v Mesa State Round of 8 match in pool B.