Heading into the DII West Coast conference playoffs, teams knew that a win Saturday meant a berth to the next stage of playoffs: the USA Rugby DII College Spring Round of 16. That made for very heated semifinals today – especially in the first half and especially from the teams that weren’t favored to win. In the end, the top-two-ranked teams – Fresno State and Saint Mary’s College – took the victories and will contest the title Sunday before heading to Irvine on April 19-20 for regionals.
The last time Fresno State and UN Reno met, the Bulldogs scored 26 points in 25 minutes, but then the Wolfpack worked its way back into contention. It was a five-point game until the waning moments, when a final try saw Fresno win by 12.
“We know they are a really strong team, especially in the forwards, and they have a really good 15 [Taylor Tito],” Fresno State captain Raquel Macias said of Reno expectations. “Defensively we had to come up together, and that was our biggest problem when we played them the first time, and I think that’s why the game was so close. So we worked on that in practice, as well as our forwards coming up and being low right off of the ruck, because they just did pick-and-goes the entire time.”
Tough ballcarriers like Audrey Dufresne and Krista Matsumura led the way in the Reno pack, and the incomparable Tito at fullback was so busy from minute 1 to 80 – off the boot, zig-zagging through defense and working overtime cleaning up linebreaks. Fresno State was burdened by some penalties, unforced knock-ons and errant lineouts on Reno’s five meter. Reno led 21-17 into the break.
“We were definitely a little worried there in the first half,” Macias confessed. “I think our biggest adjustment was keeping possession of the ball. … That was the focus of our halftime talk: Make sure we’re there, make sure we’re there to ruck, and then let’s do our phases and get it out, and then we’ll get into our flow.”
The change was felt immediately. Fresno State forwards got over their ball better and started poaching Reno’s possession. Macias and No. 8 Megan Oleski in particular did well to get their hands on the ball and counter-attack quickly. And then when the ball was moved into space, a really lovely connection between the backs flourished. Laura Ellison-Seeger was a consistent line-breaker and linked well with Averi Peterson and speedy finishers Chetna Kumar-Naicker and Meaghan Gallagher.
Fresno State scored six tries in approximately 25 minutes: 51-21. With that said, Reno owned the final 15 minutes. Taylor broke weak off a scrum for a try, and dazzled with this restart return to the five-meter before setting up Matsumura for her third score. The Bulldogs were also yellow carded and No. 8 Jillian Rovetti used the opportunity to score, 56-38.
Fresno State ran in one more try for good measure, 63-38 with Regan Garner’s conversion (she kicked four overall). On Sunday, the team faces Saint Mary’s College in the conference championship. The Gaels’ won their regular-season match 24-19.
“It was a tough loss but we looked at it, evaluated it, and were like, ‘We’re going to see them again at conference championships,’ and so here we are,” Macias reflected on the teams’ first meeting. “We’re excited and ready to face them again. We know how they play and they play exactly like us, which is tough sometimes but I think it’s going to be a good game.”
Sunday’s conference final will determine seeding into the DII regional championship, which is being held in Irvine, Calif., April 19-20 for the western portion of the country. The West Coast champion will play CSU Long Beach in the Spring Round of 16, and the runner-up will play Claremont College. The team that goes 2-0 that weekend will advance to the spring final four, May 3-4, in Matthews, N.C.