The University of Michigan retained its National Collegiate Rugby (NCR) Women’s Division I 15s National Championship, defeating repeat finalist Notre Dame College 33-17 in Houston, Texas. The finale was the only DI game to occur during NCR’s championship weekend, and the 2022 rematch occurred Saturday night under the lights inside AVEVA Stadium.
“I feel like last year, we had a lot of people thinking that it was just one game. It was just a fluke,” Michigan captain and No. 8 Maddie Bowers (lead photo) compared the 2022 and 2023 titles. “And this year we proved that we are a very solid team and we work really well together and we deserve a win.”
Michigan advanced to the 2023 title match by winning the western half of the DI bracket, and were pushed big time by Southern Nazarene (30-20) and Univ. Northern Iowa (22-15). Notre Dame College also had its work cut out for it in the eastern half of DI, and got past Iowa State 45-20 and Indiana 27-13 on back-to-back days.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game, probably our toughest game all season,” Bowers said of expectations for the Falcons. “They’re a very skilled team and have a lot of really skilled players, and we just knew we were going to have to work harder than we had all season to match up to what our standards were.”
Notre Dame College showcased a strong scrum early on and opted for the set piece when given the choice of penalty restart. Up front was Eagle Alivia Leatherman, and at the back was older sister Lucy, the No. 8 and captain. After a hard-hitting opening 15 minutes, a sideline break put the Falcons in good attacking position, and lots of hands touched the ball before captain Leatherman dove for the try, 5-0.
Michigan had some momentum in the second 20, especially as Notre Dame College’s penalty count inched up. The Falcons defense held up one dive-over, but the second attempt found championship MVP Grace Codd for the score, 5-all.
The Big 10 side was back at it minutes later and pressuring inside the Allegheny team’s 22. The ball hit the ground as everyone scrambled back into position, Michigan flyhalf Katie Gale scooped it up on the run and attacked so confidently into the try zone. Codd added the conversion for a 12-5 lead into the break.
The Falcons capitalized on that second-half energy and when awarded a penalty inside Michigan’s 22, scrumhalf Rosa Treece went quickly off the mark. The nine caught some slowly retreating defenders who had yet to reset and weaved through traffic for the try, 12-10 to Michigan.
“In the second half when Marika [Ruppart] made a 50-meter run and broke about three tackles. They were pulling her shorts down. I think that was a turning point,” Bowers said of the inside center’s impressive, determined route to the game’s next five points. “But honestly, even after the first try, our energy just got so much higher and we were like, ‘O.K., this is our game. We’re gonna go.’”
The Falcons defense was trying to strip the ball out of Ruppart’s hands, and so the inside center just kept powering forward with an iron-tight grip on the ball. Codd converted the try and the Wolverines led 19-10 with the whole fourth quarter still to come. Michigan did make it harder on itself, incurring a yellow card at minute 60, but that disadvantage only lasted six minutes, as Notre Dame College then lost Treece to a yellow card.
But Michigan managed to score when it was down a player, and that triumph is always a big boost of confidence. 2022 championship MVP Ember Larson inserted into the line and the fullback’s turn of pace caught the defense by surprise. A couple of cuts and Larson was into the try zone, 24-10.
The Falcons kept fighting and were rewarded in minute 70, when Eagle prop Alivia Leatherman crashed over the line for the try and sister Lucy converted, 24-17. But Michigan had the final say and championship MVP Codd scooped up a loose ball and just tore away for the try and conversion: 31-17. There the scoreboard held for the remainder, and Michigan had its second-straight DI trophy.
Notre Dame College head coach Vanessa Marsh named lock Alexa Piazza as the team’s Heart & Soul Award recipient, and Michigan head coach Jamie Frech elected Bowers for the Wolverines’ counterpart.
“I just wanted to be here for my team,” Bowers said of the honor. “I love it. I’ve been here for four years. My captains before me really set a good example. I was really just trying my best to bring good, positive energy to the team and bring a little heat.”