Will it be another two-title spring for Penn State?
The Women’s DI and DII College 7s National Championships commence tomorrow evening in Cary, N.C. The three-day tournaments will be broadcast live at The Rugby Channel and made available to viewers free of charge.
The DI field is superb and distracts from the fact that there are only 11 competitors in the three-pool tournament. Facing fewer opponents during a 7s tournament isn’t really an advantage considering game length and the time needed to establish a rhythm. And since the event is held from Friday-Sunday, there is even less time per day to hit peak performance.
But again, the field is stacked with elite teams that know a thing or two about championship play and have weathered adverse conditions in the past. The current queen of 7s, Penn State, leads three-team Pool A. The Nittany Lions could win the title with many versions of its roster, but if sophomore Scout Cheeks makes the trip to North Carolina, then be prepared to be impressed with the new talent. Penn State is joined by 7s nationals vet James Madison, which won the NOVA 7s qualifier to advance. UC Davis is coming off a thrilling 15s title win three weeks ago, and watch for the Aggies’ excellent offload game to keep play ever-moving. MVP Erika Hipp and playmaker Sydnee Watanabe are particularly fun to watch.
Pool B is full of more 7s championship returners, including UVA, fresh off its runner-up performance at the spring 15s championship. Joy Jefferson is a show-stopper, and Summer Harris-Jones and Zoe Schmidt pair so well in space together. Texas A&M and Stanford are familiar faces on the 7s stage, and they’ll be looking to break out of the middle of the pack this year. Watch for the dynamic duo of Olivia Bernadel-Huey and Dani McDonald, who are truly exciting ballcarriers for the Cardinal. Life University is still new to 7s but arguably the favorite in this group. Life debuted at last year’s CRC, and after an excellent DI Elite campaign this spring, hopes to ride that momentum deep into the knockouts. Kaitlyn Broughton and Nicole Strasko are just a couple of players to key in on.
Pool C sees the return of 2015 7s finalist Central Washington. The travel squad includes 2015 MVP Cassidy Meyers, familiars like Haley Schafer and Ashley Rolsma, as well as exciting young talent like Mackenzie Pusch. Expect a good match-up in Lindenwood University, which played a lot of 7s this spring. The Lions have a ton of talent, young talent, and the highly decorated freshmen and sophomores are still getting comfortable in high-pressure games. Chico State injects more West Coast physicality into the group, and 7s vet UNC will be equally as dangerous, especially if Naya Tapper makes another post-season appearance.
The top eight teams advance to Saturday’s Cup quarterfinals, while the remainder move onto the Bowl competition. But since there will only be three teams, only one Bowl semifinal will be contested (the #9 team gets the bye) and the loser will end its tournament Saturday night. Cup and Plate knockouts will continue on Sunday.
How did the national championship end up with only 11 teams? USA Rugby designated eight qualifiers that named champions and runners-up – which should have been enough to name a 12-team field. However, qualifier winners Harvard and Navy forewent their automatic berths, and runners-up Brown, Princeton, Michigan, Ohio State and Oregon State were not added. Four of the aforementioned will feature in the USA Sevens Women’s CRC the following weekend in Chester, Pa., and join several USA Rugby championship participants. Brown and Harvard capped their seasons with the first-ever varsity 7s championships. All of these events have quality lineups, and although some teams are having to choose between them, it also means more colleges are playing better 7s.
To that fact, expect good rugby out of the Division II competition. Davenport is the favorite, not only for its DII national championship in 15s, but the Panthers are also the 2015 ACRA 7s champions. The Michigan team actually won the Ohio State 7s, which served as a qualifier for DI. Returner Montana State and Ithaca College came through official USA Rugby qualifiers. Watch for Bloomsburg and Rutgers, which both performed well at ACRA 7s championship and are also competing at the CRC the following weekend. The state of Texas gets good representation with two sides in UT San Antonio and Texas State, and Springfield College rounds out the nine-team field.