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DI Elite National Championship: Lotta Same, Lotta New

  • 02 Dec 2022
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Lindenwood v Life Rugby fall 2022_Todd Lunow

The College Rugby Association of America (CRAA) is hosting its annual Fall Classic in Matthews, N.C., this weekend, and the event will produce a DI Elite national championship, and DI and DII fall champions. All of the finals will be live-streamed on The Rugby Network (TRN); however, the DII semifinals on Saturday will not feature on TRN. [Lead photo: Todd Lunow]

The DI Elite National Championship is new to the Fall Classic, as the competition relocated from the spring to the fall this year. For the fifth year in a row, Lindenwood University and Life University meet in Saturday’s final and they do so with different head coaches since their spring title match. No doubt Billy Nicholas and Ros Chou will be watching and cheering from their corners of the country.

 

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Trevor Locke is the acting head coach for Lindenwood, and he oversaw an undefeated fall season that included double-headers, senior clubs and two games against Life University. But it was no easy task. The Lions saw a big turnover is personnel since the spring 2022 season, and there are nearly as many newcomers as returners this year. Additionally, center Eti Haungatau spent the fall semester with the USA Women’s National Team in New Zealand. That put a lot of pressure on the leadership to build unity while still building to a championship on a condensed schedule. Locke could not have been more pleased with senior No. 8 Kapoina Bailey (who spent a week at the USA 7s HP camp in early November) and Taina Tukuafu (scrumhalf), and sophomore Amy Brice (outside back) for being example setters.

“They are a super positive group and hard working,” Locke told TRB. “They are able to adapt extremely well, so they’re not rigid. … [T]hey have done a great job of managing expectations, managing young people with veterans, and blending those two groups as we move forward.”

 

Lindenwood v Life Rugby fall 2022_Todd Lunow

Ahnea Aupiu / Photo: Todd Lunow

 

Hard work resonates with Locke and it’s an attribute he used to describe returning prop Lali Lafitaga, sophomore tight-five Jadyn Collins, flanker Ahnea Aupiu and back-three Demi Allen. Dutch freshman Jet Metz also earned a call-out for stepping into the flyhalf role and leading with confidence.

The two games against Life University were important tests and checkpoints, more so than the team could have realized when the season began. Lindenwood won both games by a combined 15 points and was primed for its national semifinal against Penn State. But just as the Lions were switching into playoff mode, the Nittany Lions forfeited the match, an update that reached the public two days prior to kickoff.

Life, however, got its semifinal against Central Washington, a cracker of a game that occurred at the Naval Academy. The teams had played each other two weeks prior, and although Life won 19-15, the team exited with disappointment in their own performance. The scrum, in particular, posed problems for the Marietta, Ga., team and that became a focal point for the rematch. Read more.

 

Life rugby spring '22 / Photo: Star Stevens

Life’s Makayla Lowe / Photo: Star Stevens

 

Life built a 17-5 lead into the second half, as Matilda Kocaj, Adrionna Duncan and Autumn LoCicero finished tries and Jess Keating kicked a conversion. Central Washington outscored Life in the second half and if it wasn’t for a try from Su Adegoke (who like Bailey attended the USA 7s HP camp earlier this month), the game would have gone to the Wildcats. Life won 22-19.

Head coach Ryszard Chadwick called out Sofia Fernandez, Aliyah Moala and Nickky Nguyen for big performances, and they’ll be key contributors along with the aforementioned in Saturday’s title match. Perhaps the most influential is Saher Hamdan, the USA 15s player who was bound for the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand before an injury on the U.K. warm-up tour ruled the senior out. Hamdan had been hooking for the Eagles and is playing flyhalf for Life.

“[W]e are going into this match as underdogs,” Chadwick told RunningEagles.com. “There is no pressure or expectation on us to win, so we are looking forward to just going out and playing some fun rugby. … As a group, we are looking forward to implementing certain things but we know it will not be easy with such a strong opposition.”

The Saturday final kicks off at 1 p.m. EDT at the Matthews SportsPlex. Even though the title contenders are meeting for the fifth-straight time, this game feels new given all the change this fall. Be sure to tune in.

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