Wayne State College is a national 7s and 15s champion. (PC: Janet Stabbe)
When it comes to collegiate championships, terminology is important. The landscape is already confusing and ever-changing, and employing the right verbiage helps sort the multiple competitions within this big country. So here’s a refresher for women’s colleges.
First, “national championship” doesn’t mean that the entire country is funneling toward a single title, but that the entirety of a single competition is playing toward that single title. So, for example, the DI Elite consists of only four college programs, but all four teams compete toward that national 15s title. Conversely, USA Rugby’s Division II colleges are divided into fall and spring 15s competitions, and thus there is no national championship but two seasonal championships.
Second, there are three main organizations that host women’s collegiate competitions in the U.S.: USA Rugby (USAR), the national governing body; National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA), the NCAA varsity league; and National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO), which is affiliated with but independent from USAR, and oversees members with fewer than 3,500 full-time female undergrads (4,500 for men).
There are three NATIONAL 15s championships:
• NIRA – The NCAA varsity league contests its national championship season in the fall. Dartmouth is the current titleholder (Quinnipiac holds the first three championships). There are close to 20 teams, and they’re subdivided into Tier 1 and Tier 2 competitions.
• NSCRO – More than 100 teams in leagues stretching the country compete toward their 15s championship held in the fall. Wayne State College is the current, and multiple, title-holder.
• DI Elite – USA Rugby’s top-four teams (Lindenwood, Life, Penn State, Central Washington) compete to this title in a two-weekend series in the spring. Lindenwood is the current titleholder.
Dartmouth is the NIRA national champion.
There are two SEASONAL championships, four when considering there are two per Division I and Division II.
USA Rugby accounts for the largest contingent of women’s colleges, and they officially split into separate fall and spring competitions for the 2015-16 season (the split actually dates back to fall 2013 when ACRA began holding its own fall 15s championship and not sending representatives to the spring-oriented national championship). For the first two seasons of the official shift, the DII fall champion played the DII spring champion in a national final, but not since 2017. And DI never pit its two seasonal champions against each other.
The 2018 fall champions were named in early December, and the Air Force Academy holds the DI title, and Vassar College was named DII champion. The 2019 spring champions will be named in early May, and Chico State (DI) and Tulane University (DII) own the 2018 trophies.
Air Force is the DI FALL 15s champion.
It’s a little bit more complicated with sevens, as the number of national titles has changed every year for the last five years. The following entities hold their 7s championships in the spring:
• NSCRO has been the most consistent and holds its 7s championship in late April. Wayne State College has the most titles.
• USA Rugby – This year, there are three divisions that will award national titles: Elite (DI Elite and NIRA teams), DI and DII. Last year, Lindenwood won the Elite national championship, which brought DI Elite, NIRA and DI teams together; and Air Force won the Open national championship, which brought DI and DII teams together.
When the wrong verbiage is employed, then erroneous assumptions are made about women’s rugby. For example, when USAR was only able to supply 14 of the 16 teams needed for its DII 15s spring playoffs (thus affording first-round byes to two teams), one of the post-season coaches asked incredulously: You mean we can’t find 16 DII teams in all of the U.S.?
Of course there are 16 teams, but maybe not 16 spring teams. The majority of USAR’s DII colleges compete toward the fall championship, which attracts the more populous rugby regions of the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and Rocky Mountains. Come springtime, only two California conferences – Pacific Desert and West Coast (+ UN Reno) – feed the western portion of the DII spring regional playoffs, and they’re hard-pressed to supply eight playoff-worthy teams.
There are so many nuances, as well, and they morph every year. Hybrid leagues, for example, bring teams from different divisions into one regular season and then reposition them into their respective post-seasons. This is often done for geographic reasons, but also for competitive reasons (a strong NSCRO team, for example, might prefer a DII regular season before returning to the small-school post-season). The DII Pacific Desert (SoCal) is even more complicated. It’s a DII-NSCRO hybrid league and the small-school rep is determined during the spring prior to the fall regional playoffs. So MiraCosta sealed its berth to the NSCRO 15s Round of 16 in November 2019 with its win over Occidental this spring.
The landscape is complicated, and committing to the correct language is an education in and of itself. It does no good when teams elect to use “national” because its more attractive than “fall” or “spring” champion. It perpetuates an inaccurate picture of women’s rugby in the U.S. But it’s not just on the teams themselves. USA Rugby has been notoriously bad – whether featuring a picture of Chico State above a header for the DI fall champion, or not educating live-stream commentators in the usage of “national championship.” But hey – that’s what we’re here for!