The women's college Round of 16 got a day's head start in Allendale, Mich., one of four regional sites hosting the national playoffs. DI's Penn State and Women's Cougar Rugby won their respective matches as the higher seeds, while DII's Winona and Denison advanced to the next round after wins today.
Penn State and WCR were favored to win their games today, as the Nittany Lions look to defend their title and the Cougars are becoming regular fixtures in the final four. PSU downed West Chester rather easily, 58-5, while Northern Iowa gave WCR a much better game during their 29-7 loss.
In DII, Denison defeated Illinois-Chicago (read more) to advance to the program's second trip to the national quarterfinals, while 2012 finalist Winona toughed out a 32-7 win over Indiana (Pa.).
"They were tougher than we expected," Winona coach Roger Riley said. "We were told that their danger was their outside center, and we were able to close her down really well. People had told us that they had tough, little bit rotund forwards, and they were a good opponent for our forward pack."
The IUP pack had a little more push than Winona's scrum, which Riley described as "undercooked." The Black Katts have only had two sessions on the scrum machine due to weather issues, so that set piece is still developing.
"But IUP were very strong across their front row - I don't want to take anything away from them," Riley said. "Last year we started three seniors and five freshmen in our pack [during nationals], so with that considered, our five sophomores comprise a more veteran scrum this year."
Even though Winona has been relegated to indoor practices for the majority of preseason, they have been able to work on their lineouts. Fortunately for the 2012 finalist, Winona was able to combat IUP's 6'2" jumper well, and the Pennsylvania side couldn't get her off the ground quick enough to capitalize on that advantage.
Winona held their own in the set pieces but excelled in their speed to the breakdowns. Strongside flanker Holly Vassar was particularly impressive.
"She's just a ferret," Riley said. "She is in the middle of everything. A great poacher, steals the ball a lot, great rucker and tackler. She had a great game."
But it was the backs that really pushed the divide between the two sides. Between flyhalf Ashley Nelson, inside center Holly Edelburg and outside center Caitlin Courtney, the backs boast an excellent attacking trio.
"This is the most physically talented team I've ever had," Riley said, "but it's fair to say that the backs are carrying more of the load this year. Our 10, 12 and 13 have been playing together for three years now, and they're pretty confident in what they're doing. They cause some problems for the defense."
Edelberg had a great strong game. "She's solid and has learned how to use her body really well," Riley said. "Inside center is a crash position and she uses her strength really nicely. She not only breaks through tackles but is also developing a few moves."
Quick hands down the line helped set up the first score, which Jessica Christy dotted down and Mariah Bokman converted for the 7-0 lead. IUP tied it up after using the wind for a kick that trickled to the tryline. The subsequent five-meter scrum yielded IUP's only try.
Winona answered right back after another wide play put wing Amy Gadient into the try zone. Courtney put away the third Winona try after Edelburg broke through the line and into space; Bokman converted the try. Kathryn Zahn accounted for the first second-half try, Bokman notched a penalty, and Emilee Burkhalter ended the scoring with a pick-and-go try.
It was a solid win for the Black Katts, but the team is still working toward realizing their potential.
"Fitness and conditioning, we're fine," Riley said. "We've been on the scrum machine twice, our lineouts are fine, but we've got to get all the particulars down - urgency to the breakdowns, body position in the rucks and into tackles - we're really undercooked on all those things.
"If we get to the Final Four and can practice consistently for the next two weeks, then I'm confident we'll be up to speed by then," Riley added.