Adrian College announced that its women’s rugby team will finish the 2023-24 season in National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA) and then transition to National Collegiate Rugby (NCR) beginning in fall 2024. Per Bulldogs head coach Mike Bowen, the women’s varsity rugby team will retain the same athletic department support, and crucially, play more local competition in hometown Michigan and the Midwest region. [Lead photo: Sophomore Jenesis Dotson / Adrian Athletics Dept.]
RELATED: Adrian Advances to DIII NIRA Final
In October 2020, in the thick of the pandemic, Adrian College announced the addition of women’s rugby to its athletic offerings. The program committed to NIRA — the competition for NCAA women’s varsity rugby programs — in fall 2021. At that point in time, Adrian College was the farthest-west member of NIRA, in any division (nearby Davenport University elevated to NCAA Division II in fall 2022). With NIRA provisional status, the Bulldogs built momentum through 7s and often faced teams in NCR’s Ohio Valley conference. That first fall, Adrian did travel to West Virginia to play NIRA DII Alderson Broaddus, which has since disbanded.
Adrian inched into 15s in fall 2022 and played the now-NIRA Davenport twice, NCR’s Michigan and DII Great Lakes teams. During 2023 spring 7s, the Bulldogs got more exposure to Big 10 teams. And then last fall, Adrian stepped out of provisional status and joined NIRA’s Division III competition. That’s huge, as even programs in areas with local NIRA competition have struggled to exit the provisional space (i.e., play full 15s and be post-season eligible).
All of Adrian’s DIII competition lived in New England, and games against Bowdoin, Univ. New England and Norwich occurred at neutral sites in New York and Maryland to accommodate the distance. In order to play home games, Adrian front-loaded the schedule with teams from Michigan and Ohio: Davenport, and NCR’s Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame College. And the prep paid off. In the team’s first official DIII NIRA season, the Bulldogs beat UNE in the semifinals before falling to longtime champion Bowdoin in the final.
Fall 2023 was a resounding success, but it did take a toll.
“The amount of travel we had [last] semester just wasn’t sustainable,” Bowen explained the switch to NCR. “[A]nd it looks like our projected NCR conference is going to be significantly closer for us. Excited to lead the team through this change!”
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So Adrian will finish its spring 2024 season, which begins with a trip to Tropical 7s in Tampa, then follows with three 7s tournaments in Michigan. Then the program will ready for fall 2024 in NCR.
“Adrian has already played almost every NCR team in the region since the program’s inception,” NCR Women’s Rugby Director Angela Smarto noted an easy transition. “Adrian values the experience of its players, which led to them to propose full membership next season. NCR values schools that take women’s rugby seriously, so the match was a no-brainer. NCR is happy to accept Adrian into Division I in the toughest region in the country.”
NCR DI is currently working on a reorganization, so stay tuned for where Adrian slots in competition wise.
It’s important to note that Adrian hasn’t lost its varsity status; it’s just not competing in NIRA. So Adrian could still count toward that goal of 40 varsity programs, which is needed before women’s rugby is considered for full NCAA championship status. It’s just that NIRA will no longer have a line of sight into whether Adrian is complying with NCAA regulations. Most NCAA varsity programs do belong to NIRA, but NIRA membership is not a requirement for varsity status. Central Washington University and Marywood University — before the institution demoted women’s rugby to club status last fall — fell into a similar category.
So Adrian could rejoin NIRA at some point, but obviously, some new programs would need to emerge to knit together the landscape. And especially for NIRA’s Division III, those programs that have been in the provisional space for years now need to grow to 15s strength. When women’s rugby does reach 40 teams, the championship season will be 15s.
And as for your final question: How many NCAA varsity teams are there? It’s best to wait until the end of the school year, as that’s when athletic departments tend to announce additions, or subtractions, from their offerings.