Six teams from Boston to Charlotte, N.C., consolidated into the new Division I East for the 2018-19 season. Teams contested a five-game season, and now the top four are readying for the May 4-5 championship in Raleigh, N.C. The two finalists will advance to the USA Rugby DI Club National Championship quarterfinals (aka, Eastern Regional Championship) along with the Midwest’s top-two teams.
NOVA finished the split season 4-1 and is the No. 1 seed heading into playoffs. Philadelphia is also 4-1, but NOVA banked a crucial bonus point in its fall loss to Raleigh, and that provided the edge in the standings.
“Our approach to preparing is pretty consistent. We don’t judge a season based off one win or one loss,” NOVA coach Brian Walker reflected on last year’s finish in the Mid-Atlantic Conference (MAC). “The biggest changes from year to year revolve around talent management.”
Who has relocated to/from the area? Who’s retired? Who’s moving up from the B side to the A side? What positions need filling?
“Luckily we have two very strong player development officers in Fred Bardot and Kat Aversano,” the coach continued. “If we get the people right, that’s most of the battle.”
NOVA has a nice mix of youth and experience this year, and Walker heaped praise on scrumhalf Bri Kim and lock Avery Rain for bringing harmony to the pitch.
“I can’t say enough about our two captains. They lead from the front both on and off the field and we are a better team for it,” Walker commended the duo. “Likewise, we have veterans who have been captains either with us previously, or on other clubs; people like flyhalf Emily Blease, center CJ Hildreth, flanker Stephanie Iacobucci. It’s great to have that experience. The moment is never going to be too big for them.”
Poor weather limited the fall run-outs, and NOVA went 1-1, defeating Albany 48-5 and losing to Raleigh 25-20. Four of the six DI East teams competed in the Gold Cup and front-loaded their schedules to make room for double-headers against the Midwest and Red River. NOVA, having finished third in the MAC last year, did not participate.
“I don’t think we missed out by not being in Gold Cup this season,” Walker surmised. “It was great playing those matches the last couple years – it’s always fun to play teams from other regions that you don’t get to see. But if you look at the scores and the rosters, you could clearly see that money and travel availability were factors in some outcomes. Some teams were traveling with 15 or 16 people for a weekend, or not traveling at all. One would have to assume that people were having to prioritize between being able to travel for playoffs or for Gold Cup. That’s not the way you want to see a competition decided.”
The DI East also has its geographic challenges, but NOVA fits in the middle of the region and can drive to all of its matches.
The spring brought wins against Philadelphia (22-12), Boston (43-26) and Charlotte (53-0). Raleigh and Boston went 3-2, and like NOVA, a bonus-point loss gave the Venom a boost in the standings and third-place finish. NOVA will play Boston in the DI East semifinals on May 4. The teams last saw each other on April 6, and Boston traveled to Virginia for a 43-26 loss. Philadelphia and Raleigh will contest the second semifinal, and those teams haven’t seen each other since Oct. 6 – a 27-12 win to Philly.
“In our conference, the teams are quite strong,” Walker noted the five-point standings differential among semifinalists. “It’s literally anybody’s ballgame on May 4-5 in Raleigh. Whoever shows up in best form will be moving on.”
The DI East, which includes teams from three Competitive Regions, receives two berths to the quarterfinal round of the USA Rugby DI Club National Championship. In the eastern portion of the bracket (aka, eastern regional championship), Midwest champion Detroit and runner-up Metropolis Valkyries will face the East teams in Obetz, Ohio.
“I like where we are heading into playoffs. I think a good word to describe us is ‘balanced,’” Walker concluded. “You never have all the depth you want to have but we probably have more than a lot of teams. We are not a backs-dominated team or a forwards-dominated team, we are ‘team’ team. We can play on grass or turf, dry conditions or wet, etc. I think all of those things are valuable characteristics at playoff time.”
DI EAST CHAMPIONSHIP
May 4 Semifinals
1 p.m. ET #2 Philadelphia vs. #3 Raleigh
3 p.m. ET #1 NOVA vs. #4 Boston
May 5 Finals
12 p.m. ET 3rd Place
2 p.m. ET Championship