Three Mason-Dixon teams join the Florida champ in Greenville, N.C., for this weekend’s eastern portion of the USA Rugby DI College Spring Championship. The team that finishes 2-0 will advance to the spring final against the western rep, which will be determined in Irvine, Calif., by Saturday afternoon.
UVA vs. VIRGINIA TECH
The Mason-Dixon teams agreed that the two teams that won their conference semifinals would not contest the championship, as it mimicked the first round of the spring regional championship. So Saturday’s game between UVA and Virginia Tech will not only send a team to the spring semifinals but also declare a Mason-Dixon champion.
These teams have a well documented, respectful rivalry, and in a shift against history, the Hokies have had the edge this year. Tech won the teams’ fall match 38-17 and then a fantastic game in terrible conditions evolved in the spring rematch: 21-19 to the Hokies. The teams also saw each other at the Queens Cup 7s, an automatic qualifier for 7s nationals, and Virginia Tech beat UVA 14-10 en route to the title.
President, captain and flyhalf Kirn Kaur is the engineer, and she along with Jetta Owens are the directors in the backs. Amelia Griese and Grace Pierce set the tone in the pack, which took its lumps against UVA during the spring matrix match. Possession in the breakdowns and defensive integrity will be key against the Flamingos.
“Losing to Tech was the best thing that could have happened to us. They’re quite eager for the rematch,” UVA head coach Nancy Kechner said. “The biggest difference is some new tweaks to the game plan, and it helps that everyone is really fit. This team comes to practice early and does sprints.”
UVA runs young but a good recruitment class has meant good numbers – unlike last year when UVA traveled to regionals with 16 players. Fortunately, several newcomers have come in with high school experience, including Natalie Groder, who transferred from UNC; West End, Va., product Emma Auld, whose “rugby IQ is off the charts,” according to Kechner; and Marissa Kaplan, who comes to life on game day, per coach. Look toward fourth-years like captains Anna Thillairajah and Hannah Kirk Nass, who are having great seasons at No. 8 and flyhalf, respectively, to lead the on-field performance.
“Everything clicked against Queens,” Kechner said of the 78-5 Mason-Dixon semifinal win. “Sometimes the ball bounces your way, but we just couldn’t make a mistake. … If we play [Virginia Tech] the way we played against Queens, then we’ll have a good day.”
Kechner attributed some of that cohesion to the team’s first-ever spring break tour. The team went to Ireland with Irish Rugby Tours and did all those good bonding things. They played two games and had three coaching sessions, the third of which was led by former British Lion David Corkery.
“You’ve never seen kids pay attention to something so much before,” Kechner marveled at her players, rapt.
Saturday will demand the absolute best of these two Virginia rivals, and this game will take a lot out of both teams. But both will need to regroup for a second game on Sunday.
CENTRAL FLORIDA VS. JAMES MADISON
Florida champion Central Florida is the favorite here – and not just because the team finished in second place last spring. That experience certainly goes a long way, but the team graduated 26 players over two years, so UCF is a very different squad, so much so that head coach Raoul Besse wasn’t thinking about post-season at all when the year began. Read more.
They key, however, was the specialized recruitment that refilled the ranks with coachable, adaptable athletes. Per Besse:
As you grow these teams, athletes start recruiting athletes. They start recruiting more people like themselves instead of people who want to come out and just have fun. That’s where they are now. The recruits are pretty good athletes, which allows you to teach the game way faster instead having people who don’t know how to catch a ball.
Seniors Christina Norman, the captain, center Donneisha Smith and halfback Jennifer Fasano are important leaders who promote UCF’s game, which has altered somewhat this year with a slightly smaller, yet more mobile, pack. Breakout performances occur every week, and the team’s last outing – an 89-0 win over Florida State – saw several first-years (prop Lil’China La’Teal Davis, flanker Madi Woodson, wings Alyssa Gonzalez and Mary Watkins, and 18-year-old Kya Williams ) feature on the scoreboard.
James Madison is a regular at playoffs, especially since the Mason-Dixon used to send up to five teams to regionals when the DI Elite was involved. But the Harrisonburg, Va., team isn’t heading to North Carolina to simply fill a berth. Of the four challenge matches in the Mason-Dixon, only James Madison and South Carolina took the pitch (JMU won 27-10). The following weekend, JMU took a heavy loss to Virginia Tech (69-5) in the semifinals but then rallied with a 34-5 win over Queens on day two, earning the spot at regionals. Whatever happens, kudos to James Madison for its commitment and willingness.
Saturday’s victors will meet each other on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET to determine the spring finalist.