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UW Eau Claire Repeats as NCR DII Champion

  • 04 Dec 2023
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UWEC rugby

UW Eau Claire and Vassar College exchanged the lead five times before determining the National Collegiate Rugby (NCR) Division II 15s National Championship. Three points separated the teams when the final buzzer sounded, and it was UW Eau Claire celebrating the 32-29 win and repeat national championship.

RELATED: NCR DII Semifinal Recap

 

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UW Eau Claire advanced to the final inside Houston’s AVEVA Stadium after first beating Illinois 39-17 on Saturday, Dec. 2. Meanwhile, Vassar eliminated Coast Guard from title contention with a 48-38 win in the semifinals.

The Brewers, much like Saturday, started furiously. Wing Danny White poached ball at midfield and the team marched into Eau Claire territory. After three minutes, flyhalf Zoe Lynch slipped past the defense and converted her own try, 7-0. Vassar is certainly not one of those teams that needs time to warm up.

Vassar Rugby

Vassar No. 8 Lauren Showalter / Photo: Jackie Finlan

Vassar was building toward another score, but a five-meter lineout went unrealized due to a double pump. Neither team really had a kicker and both preferred to run the ball out of its end, but Eau Claire’s passing errors hindered that strategy early on. Still it was clear that the Wisconsin team wanted to stretch the field and take its fight to the edges.

The Eau Claire defense held nevertheless and did not yield any points. Finally enough passes connected to set fullback Cerys Ridd free out on the outside. After a few phases, flanker Julia Bancroft, who was often found in the back line, snapped the defense and cut hard against the final defender to score. Championship MVP and co-captain Izzy Currie converted to tie it up, 7-7.

UWEC rugby

UWEC flanker Julia Bancroft / Photo: Jackie Finlan

Eau Claire then scored two tries in close proximity to each other. Both sides were able to poach each other’s breakdowns, but Eau Claire had a higher success rate than Coast Guard had in the rucks the previous day. Mobile forwards like Bancroft, hooker Lily Walrath, No. 8 Kaitlynn Moore and Heart & Soul winner Greta Schnur carried well and sucked in the defense, and then a superior back line spread the pitch. Ridd and Currie scored tries near the first-quarter mark: 17-7.

Although Vassar’s tight-forward attack was at times vulnerable, it still bred success. Fullback Jude Robinson galloped through the defense and then pack went to work. Once in striking distance of the try line, scrumhalf Sophia Bailey dove over the line and Lynch converted, 17-14.

UWEC rugby

Sophia Bailey tackles Cerys Ridd / Photo: Jackie Finlan

Eau Claire penalties began to mount, and the slight but aggressive Bailey knew when to quick tap and where to earn the most meters. Flanker Asia Baker was also a guaranteed meters gainer (and captains Julie Geller and Grace Skakel’s choice for Heart & Soul award) and bust through the defense for Vassar’s third try and second lead change, 19-17.

The score held into the halftime break, but just before the whistle, Vassar incurred the first of two yellow cards. While a player down, Eau Claire poached possession and attempted to run the ball out of danger, but a knock-on handed the ball back to Vassar. From the subsequent scrum, Bailey peeled off the weak side and it was a foot race to the corner – that Bailey won, 24-7.

UWEC rugby

UWEC flyhalf Megan Ludy / Photo: Jackie Finlan

Ludy went for a big weaving run through traffic, then Moore and Walrath continued the forward momentum. Currie finished off the try to close to within two (24-22). Perhaps some fatigue worked into the Vassar ranks as the tackles started inch upward. After a series of penalties, the Brewers took its second yellow card at the 60-minute mark, and Eau Claire scored during that period.

A weakside attack off a 10-meter scrum set off a series of pummels at the line. The defense withstood it until the ball moved wide to Currie, 27-24, for the third lead change. But the try cost Vassar more than just the lead. Bailey, who was hustling back in defense, got twisted in the try-line melee and suffered a lower-leg injury.

UWEC rugby

Championship MVP Izzy Currie / Photo: Jackie Finlan

Sometimes the loss of an important player can take the verve out of a team, but Vassar didn’t dip. The dynamic Robinson cut through the defense for the team’s fifth try, handing Vassar the 29-27 lead with fewer than 10 minutes to play.

The Brewers continued to struggle with high tackles and fatigue set in as the defense let Eau Claire tap through penalty marks and gain 10 meters of steam before contact. With five minutes to go, Ludy again wove through traffic – making a good case for a role with more carrying – and scored the game-winner, 32-29.

UWEC rugby

There were five minutes to play and Vassar had some opportunity to produce a sixth lead change, but it wasn’t to be. UW Eau Claire held on for the three-point win and triumphed in a thriller of a final. What a game.

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