It’s the best time of year: college playoffs. For National Collegiate Rugby, that means its Division I, Division II and Small College teams are heading into 15s regional playoffs this Friday-Sunday. The following is a round-up of the first round of play, as well as some explanation to the Coaches Poll / rankings confusion.
Remember that this a Friday-Sunday format, so quarterfinals will occur on Nov. 10 at Elkhart, Ind., and St. Louis, Mo., and semifinals on Nov. 12. The consolation matches will occur Saturday.
There are a couple highlights here, the first being the introduction of South Atlantic (SARC) teams Virginia and Virginia Tech. Between them, they have featured in several 15s championships in the last decade, and they bring that East Coast representation to a mostly Midwest field. In Elkhart, Virginia sees Indiana, which finished runner-up in the Big 10 and also inherits quality talent from the active Rugby Indiana high school system. Virginia Tech is in St. Louis as the lone at-large team and takes on Midwest champion Northern Iowa. Teams will be confronted by size and speed.
Michigan is the headliner and faces Southern Nazarene on Friday. One of the biggest benefits of the Big 10 is good, consistent competition, and that better prepares teams for the post-season. We’re so eager to see what the Oklahoma team does, especially after debuting in the DI quarterfinals last year and setting that gauge. SNU needs to enforce its game while nimbly adjusting to a team that has more weapons than what the Bolts saw in Lonestar.
And finally, Notre Dame College and Iowa State line up in Elkhart on Friday. Both teams welcomed new head coaches this fall, so we’re eager to see how/if there are tweaks to their games. The winner will face the winner of Virginia vs. Indiana, and the two Sunday victors advance to the national championship on Saturday, Dec. 2 in Houston.
Saturday, Nov. 11 Round of 16 • Sunday, Nov. 12 Quarterfinals
Saturday, Dec. 2 Semifinals • Sunday, Dec. 3 Finals
Division II greatly expanded this season, and thus needs some explanation, especially regarding the weekly Coaches Polls. They’re valuable, as they keep the general rugby public engaged and informed about the rugby happening around the competition. Teams enjoy them. Schools take notice. But they’re not actually rankings and they weren’t employed to structure brackets and match-ups.
This new DII field now involves teams and conferences that haven’t seen each other since 2019, before covid, and so coaches don’t have a current gauge to rank the entire competition. Regionals will help rebuild that gauge. [For funsies: The 2019 Fall 15s Championship bracket, the last time these conferences all played each other under USA Rugby.] So how were the brackets structured? Conference champions were dispersed across the regions (all but the West has three conference winners) and every region got an at-large team.
So in the East Region (Henniker, N.H.), there are three conference champs and an at-large, just like South and Midwest. The Coast Guard vs. Columbia match-up is the Round 16 game to watch. Coast Guard has lots of post-season experience in ACRA/CRAA, and coach Sarah Price is calling this year’s team one of the Bears’ best. Columbia beat Vassar twice en route to the Tri-State title and has drawn everyone’s interest. The victor will play the winner of at-large New Hampshire and Roger Williams, a 2022 national semifinalist and reigning CRC DII 7s champ.
The South Region (Culpeper, Va.) is on the same side of the bracket, meaning the champion will play the East Region champ in the national semifinals. This group, which also includes three conference champions and an at-large, is a perfect example for gauge setting, as there are two former CRAA teams and two NCR conference champs.
Mid-Atlantic champion Temple will face Upstate New York’s Syracuse on Saturday. Temple was in CRAA’s 2022 semifinals and the 2021 championship, and this year emerged out of a new conference that included former Capital teams. Syracuse played in the 2021 NCR DI playoffs (before there was a DII), then the conference didn’t send a rep in 2022. Vassar is the 2022 CRAA DII Fall champion and the at-large team in the South. The Brewers will face South Atlantic champ Coastal Carolina in the Round of 16.
The reigning DII national champion, UW Eau Claire, headlines the Midwest Region in Elkhart, Ind. The team enjoyed a much better run-up to the post-season and appreciated the extra games to really sync (Derek Waters interview forthcoming). Eau Claire starts against Fairfield University, an at-large out of Tri-State that was not listed on the Coaches Poll but played Vassar to a 27-12 loss in the conference semifinals. Great Lakes champion Grand Valley State played a full fall schedule and won all games comfortably. The Lakers will face Ohio Valley champion Cincinnati, which also crushed its two league opponents home and away, and tested itself against DI Kent State in a three-point loss.
The West Region is a bit tough to predict, but we’re leaning toward Colorado School of Mines to pull through. The Orediggers are isolated out in High Peaks and haven’t played a ton of games, but that’s been the case when they’ve advanced to CRAA championship weekends. The Colorado team also showed well at CRC 7s. Mines will play playoffs first-timer Louisiana State, which opted for Lonestar this year. The championship match was canceled, as UT San Antonio forfeited, but but LSU is eager to put an athletic team on the pitch. Both Illinois and Bowling Green were runners-up in their respective conferences. Illinois played UW Eau Claire to a 43-5 loss in the Great Waters final. Great Lakes uses standings for final places, and when BGSU played champ Grand Valley State in the first week of the season, it lost 79-0.
The same case for DII is applicable to Small College: Coaches Polls weren’t used to structure brackets. However, there is more historical knowledge in this competition, which has been naming national 15s champions since 2007, and there is only one new Small College conference this year: Tri-State.
This time, moving west to east … Wayne State College is back from DII and with a new head coach in Bryn Chivers. The Wildcats have played the coach’s former team, Univ. South Dakota, a handful of times but as usual, the 15s options are slim in Nebraska. The Wildcats will look to restart their Small College existence against MSU Moorhead, which won Northern Lights against Gustavus Adolphus. The last time these two played each other in the playoffs was fall 2019 in the national semifinals. We’re loving on UW Platteville, which pushed Northern Michigan in a regular season win and then dropped a heart-breaking 28-27 loss in the Great Waters final. But all that good experience will be funneled into its Round of 16 match against Mid-America’s Pittsburg State, which is back for its second-straight regionals.
Northern Michigan is also carrying that momentum into the Midwest Region and faces a relatively unknown Gannon Univ. out of Allegheny. The Pennsylvania team hasn’t played a lot of ball, which brings an air of mystique, and they’ll be confronted with lots of size and power on Saturday. SUNY Cortland is the favorite against Great Lakes’ Calvin in the other R16 match. The Peace Frogs have a lot of post-season experience and gleaned good take-aways after a 10-point loss to St. Bonaventure for the Upstate New York title.
For St. Bonaventure, that Upstate New York title was its first since 2014. They’re riding high as they ready for East Stroudsburg on Saturday. The Pennsylvania team finished runner-up to York College, which couldn’t travel. Lee Univ. is the top-seeded team in this group and 2022 national runner-up. The Flames face NCR newcomers Hofstra, which finished runner-up to Siena in the newly added Tri-State conference.
The reigning national champion resides in the East Region, and Endicott is looking as strong as ever. They have the knowledge about what it takes to get through two doubleheader weekends, and the process begins with at-large Keene State out of Rugby Northeast. Colby is also a Rugby Northeast team and when it played Keene Stat win the regular season, the Maine side won 79-0. Colby takes on Tri-State champion Siena College, which beat Hofstra 40-27 in last Saturday’s conference final.