BYU hasn’t featured in a championship since 2016, the first year of the DI Elite, and there’s a quartet of current players who played in that title bout against Penn State. The top tier of the women’s collegiate landscape has shifted the last few years, and BYU is now a spring-based DI program. On Saturday, the Cougars will compete for its first USA Rugby DI College Spring Championship against Virginia Tech.
RELATED: Spring College Playoff Brackets
“There’s this notion that we are downgrading from DI Elite, but we’re actually a DI team,” BYU head coach Tom Waqa said. “We don’t offer scholarships. We don’t have admission slots. We’re a club team that operates at a DI Elite level, which is a credit to the coaches and the players.”
That level of performance was on display during the spring quarterfinal and semifinal rounds. The Cougars traveled to southern California for a 65-0 win over Stanford and then 49-7 win over UC Santa Barbara on back-to-back days.
“The score didn’t tell the story of the second game against UCSB. They played really well,” Waqa said. “Those first 15 minutes, we were in a feeling-out stage and were playing the wrong game against them. Credit to UCSB, they kept us under pressure that brought unforced errors with knock-ons and some mechanics problems. And then we adjusted.”
The first try came from wing Heather Erickson, who had a great day, and then the team started mounting attacks from there. No. 8 Sandy Kanuch, prop Hannah Beagley and hooker Lora Gubler scored first-half tries from a 20-0 lead at the break. BYU then had the wind at its back and the kicking game became more influential. Prop Emily Briggs, wing Alisa Baker, lock Larissa Graham, flanker Kylie Clark and reserve Tiana Tolman dotted down before the Gauchos got on the board.
“I’m really happy with how the defense came through on both days,” said Waqa, who pointed to tighthead prop Emily Briggs as the standard-setter on that side of the ball and in contact. “The only points we gave up came from our offense. We threw an intercept [that Naomi Carrillo turned into a try], but our defense completely shut down both teams.”
Waqa indicated that UCSB was the strongest team BYU played across the fall and spring, behind DI Elite’s Central Washington University. The two opponents brought out the best in the players, and saw newcomers like Gina Young, Marion Morrow and Taylor Johnston force their way onto the travel roster to North Carolina. Kylie Clark thrived at strongside flanker, a difficult charge given its predecessor, Grace Taito, who will not play in the spring final. Waqa is more than confident in the team’s the depth and acknowledged Clark as a player to watch.
“We’re in good shape going into the finale,” Waqa said. “There’s always room for improvement but I’m confident we can build on the game we played in California.”
Again, expect defense to be the platform off which BYU builds it performance.
Virginia Tech is also competing in its first DI spring championship (read more) and earned its berth after a 29-20 quarterfinal win over rival UVA and 34-12 semifinal victory over Central Florida.
“We don’t know anything about Virginia Tech, just that they beat UCF, which says a lot,” Waqa said. “We’re relaxed, but we’re not going in overconfident. We’re going to prepare like we’re playing Lindenwood in the DI Elite championship.”
Briggs, Kainoa Ah Quin, Brooklyn Grange and Elle Peterson are the four players who represented BYU in that 2016 DI Elite national championship match, so they’ll be instrumental in sharing their knowledge and setting expectations. The game kicks off at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday, May 4 in Matthews, N.C. Tune into FloRugby.com for the livestream.