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Preview: Final College Championships of 2021

  • 02 Dec 2021

Notre Dame College is one of 12 teams vying for a title this weekend.

This weekend will award the final collegiate championship titles of the year, and three organizations are in action. National Collegiate Rugby (NCR) has eight teams heading to Knoxville, Tenn., this weekend and will name small college and its first-ever DI national 15s champions. Collegiate Rugby Association of America (CRAA) and American Collegiate Rugby Association (ACRA) will be in Matthews, N.C. The former will host a DI fall final, and the latter will name the DII fall champion.

RELATED: Combined collegiate playoff brackets

(See viewing information at end of article).

Davenport’s Ashleigh DeWitt / Photo: Bobby Gable

The CRAA final features Davenport University and the U.S. Naval Academy. The Panthers posted big numbers throughout the regular season and post-season, but worked in challenges like Penn State to stay sharp. Bethany Gable is the on-field captain and directs from No. 8, while the injured Mariah Pruitt brings a ton of guidance and insight from the sideline. The duo recapped regionals and the gains made in Oklahoma. Additionally, Addy Ochoa is such a solid, calming presence at flyhalf and fullback Megan Bird has been guarding the back field for years. Overall, the Grand Rapids, Mich., team distributes responsibilities evenly around the pitch, that it’s almost to tough to highlight individuals. That said, watch for difference-makers like Grace Gohl, who has crazy acceleration, and flanker Ashleigh DeWitt, who plays the game on the front foot and also takes the shots at goal.

Photo: Christian Hall / @hall.aboutthepics

Navy competed in the 2019 DI fall final against reigning champion Air Force, which did not advance to playoffs this year. The Midshipmen have a huge roster, enough to run three squads against each other at training, and got a real good look at itself during its 17-7 semifinal win against Northeastern University. The team trailed at one point and there were missteps, but captain and No. 8 Sarah Skinner had supreme confidence in the team’s fitness and grit. Those assets paid off late in the match. Skinner is an incomparable work horse and drives that forward game, which is happy to pick and go down the middle of the field, and freshman Marissa Meyer adds a lovely punch to the back attack. Navy was happy to kick and also had good counter-attacking options, but that could get risky against Davenport and its dangerous outside backs.

Vassar’s Kira Nolan / Photo:

ACRA pits Vassar College and Temple University against each other for the 2 p.m. ET match. The Brewers have lots of experience at this stage of the competition, but as senior captains Emily Howell, Vivika Sheppard and Kira Nolan explained, there are only five or so current players who have actually played in those high-stakes games. But Vassar has been refilling that well all fall, playing a regularly scheduled Tri-State season and adding in Bowdoin, the team’s only loss and gut-check. Coast Guard nearly cost Vassar the trip south, but the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., team had the wherewithal to rally from a 15-point deficit and win its semifinal by 16 points. Howell is a demon from No. 8 and has scored a whopping 34 tries this fall. Center/flyhalf Nolan has 117 points on 12 tries and 27 conversions, and fullback Sheppard is tied for second in tries scored with 12.

Temple vs. UVM

Temple had a shorter season due to conference mates’ low numbers, but the Owls never lingered on what they lacked. Every win and opportunity to play at the next level brought another wave of confidence and experience, and the Mid-Atlantic champ has earned its way to North Carolina this Saturday. The team beat Colorado Mesa University 43-17 in the quarterfinals and then overcame a deficit against a very physical Vermont to win its semifinal 19-17. No. 8 and forwards captain Miranda Kenny is force and momentum, and she gets support up front from hooker and president Emily Lesher. Backs captain Pippa Barratt directs things from the wing, and watch for young flyhalf Erin Phelan, who is already a confident decision-maker. Temple might be the underdog in this match-up, but to quote Lesher, ‘‘Hungry dogs run faster.”

SUNY Cortland

There are more moving parts in the NCR championships, which are hosting semifinals and finals for its two competitions. Small College is first, and SUNY Cortland and Lee University kick off at 9 a.m. ET. Cortland started the fall with new head coaches Ashley Crossway and Natalie DiMeglio, and one goal in mind: Rebuild. But then notable wins against Ithaca College and St. Bonaventure buoyed the team’s confidence and altered the goals to include the post-season. The Peacefrogs beat Rochester and then-higher-ranked Endicott College to win the Northeast region
al championship, an achievement that required a skillful adjustment to the weather conditions. The coaches explained that its tactics reflect good rugby understanding, not a forward-heavy squad, per se, and that versatility will show itself in Knoxville. Watch leaders Claire Brandon and Kailey Gleeson to make a difference on the pitch.

Lee captains Anna Gilliam and Siena Macy

Lee University head coach Chris Martin also expected a rebuilding season and laid out a months-long schedule that gradually introduced the game to a host of newcomers. Those newcomers then clarified: We’re here to win. It was an interesting sentiment, considering these rookies didn’t know what a ruck was, but Martin could work with that mindset. Games against The Citadel and VMI brought context to the game, especially in the physicality and aggression departments, and those reality checks were useful to the first-years. Forwards captain and flanker Anna Gilliam and lock Kayla Sharpe are the only four-year players on the team, and they drive the mobile pack. Junior backs captain and flyhalf Siena Macy has come into her own since playing with the NCR 7s All-Star team and directs the attack with new confidence. Lee had one game at regionals against post-season first-timer Loyola (Md.), which also had good speed. The Flames won 37-17 for the berth to the national semifinals.

Wayne State College’s Lauren Nelson and Selma Taylor

At 11 a.m. perennial champion Wayne State College takes on nationals first-timer Northern Michigan University. The reigning national champion will be the familiar piece at nationals; however, WSC has added a new wrinkle to its arsenal this year. Head coach Darrin Barner brought in MLR pro Martini Talapusi to introduce a new attack, and after some growing pains, the Wildcats embraced a more seamless, crisper offense that spreads the decision-making across more hands. Influential players like senior backs captain Lauren Nelson and senior forwards captain Izzy Robinson will drive the new-look team but also play with the finesse and physicality that marked teams of yore. Junior Selma Taylor is also an important role player, and watch for freshman Portia Jones, who brings high school experience from Des Moines and has punched up the pack. WSC received an automatic berth to the semifinals.

Northern Michigan backs captain Chance McDougal / Photo: IG @badgerkings10

Northern Michigan is at a place where it has many of the important pieces for a successful program. There is perspective and excellent leadership in senior captains Chance McDougal (backs) and Kaitlyn Bammel (forwards). They played on the fall 2018 team that faced Wayne State College at regionals, and they are committed to a positive experience this weekend that resonates after their graduation. Junior president and flyhalf Rachel Placeway is a force, both on the pitch and off it, and wants this nationals push to influence the team’s expectations going forward. (Read more from the leadership team.) To boot, the team loves its head coach, former Rugby World Cup Eagle Tina Nesberg, who joined the team in fall 2019 and thus really only had a season with Northern Michigan before the fall 2021 season. But it’s all coming together, as demonstrated in back-to-back wins at the Great Waters conference championship, and then 74-19 regionals victory against MSU Moorhead. That result landed with Wayne State College, and the Wildcats will not underestimate Northern Michigan.

UNI’s Maggie Burns / Photo: Annahlee Huspen

Division I semifinals follow, and Northern Iowa and Notre Dame College take the pitch at 1 p.m. ET. TRB previewed this match yesterday, and is expecting some similarities in these two teams. Both are looking to reclaim former heights. UNI used to be a “final four” team and head coach Meghan Flanigan has been angling the Panthers to that destination for five years now. Important personnel like Maggie Burns are voracious in that pursuit as well. Notre Dame College, like several teams this weekend, was expecting a rebuilding season after dropping from the NCAA varsity league this fall, but gains came relatively quickly once the Falcons started playing Allegheny games. New head coach Jack Nece, fellow staff and the bigger-than-expected roster is happy to advance program goals ahead of schedule. Read more.

Marquette University

Life University J.V. and Marquette University end Saturday with their 3 p.m. semifinal. The Milwaukee team has been growing in strength the last few years, especially as leaders like president Kayla McQuestion (Catholic Memorial) and recent grad and coach Aoife Hanley (Divine Savior Holy Angels) integrate from their high-level high school rugby pedigrees into the program. Captain and flyhalf Angela Andrews has also been important to Marquette’s repeat appearances at the Great Waters playoffs, and initially the team was just happy to advance to the conference final (Oshkosh has blocked that route for two years). But then a league title led to regionals, and Marquette gained a ton of confidence by overcoming a 21-7 halftime deficit to beat Iowa State 29-26 in the regional Round of 16, followed by a 41-12 semifinal win against Grand Valley State. Aside from the aforementioned, track Ryley Rand in the forwards, scrumhalf Evelyn Mitchell in the middle, and Hayley Weeder in the centers.

Life’s Nina Mason / Phot
o: Star Stevens

Life University has a large roster and its J.V. team is the one competing in NCR. Head coach Ros Chou wants to give those players who are working just as hard as the DI Elite team an opportunity to experience a season that culminates in playoffs. The squad includes freshmen, walk-ons who played their first rugby at the regional championships, and transfers and grad students. The team also includes flyhalf Nina Mason, who will stand out this weekend. Life traveled to Danville, Va., for regionals and posted two shutouts on back-to-back days: 56-0 vs. Syracuse and 55-0 vs. Clemson. Mason scored 39 points on two tries, seven conversions, four penalties and a dropgoal. Freshman Sarah Barsoum accounted for five times to lead the squad in tries, and sophomore Lyric Greenhill-Casados followed with three. This team has a lot of practice reps and excellent in-house competition to ready it for Knoxville, but there are completely new people on the pitch, and game flow is still developing.


CRAA DI Fall Championship

Saturday, Dec. 4 @ 6 p.m. ET

The Rugby Network

Davenport v Navy

ACRA DII Fall Championship

Saturday, Dec. 4 @ 2 p.m. ET

The Rugby Network

Vassar v Temple

NCR National Championships

Saturday, Dec. 4 • Semifinals (ET)

Facebook Live Event

9 a.m. Cortland v Lee (SC)

11 a.m. Northern Michigan v Wayne St College (SC)

1 p.m. Northern Iowa v Notre Dame College (DI)

3 p.m. Marquette v Life (DI)

Sunday, Dec. 5 • Finals (ET)

Facebook Live Event

11 a.m. Small College Championship

1:30 p.m. DI Championship

(3rd place matches occur on Field 2)

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