Vassar College and Univ. Wisconsin Eau Claire are the final Division II teams remaining in the National Collegiate Rugby (NCR) 15s championship season. The teams won their respective national semifinals on Saturday and will play out the title match today inside AVEVA Stadium at 2 p.m. CT. The Rugby Network has the free live-stream.
Vassar College and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy contested the first Saturday semifinal. There’s a lot of familiarity between the two programs, which come out of the Northeast, both they’re both new to NCR.
“The biggest thing is you have to keep the ball as much as possible, because they have a lot of dangerous runners,” Vassar College head coach Tony Brown said of the main goal against Coast Guard. “We were very aware that if we gave them a lot of possession and a solid platform that they’d run tries in. And they did. They scored 38 points.”
But Vassar scored 48 and got the scoreboard ticking over after three minutes. A knock-on from the kickoff put the Brewers in attacking territory and flanker Asia Baker scored the first of three tries from the senior. Scrumhalf Sophia Bailey, an opportunistic nine who likes to go quick from the mark, scored three first-half tries.
“Sophia Bailey was electric at nine but that’s her role and that’s her job,” Brown said. “And the reason why she can be electric at 9 is because forwards are winning rucks quickly or forcing the other team into penalties, and she benefits from that.”
But Coast Guard did surge at key points in the match. After going down 12-0, the Bears rallied with back-to-back tries from center Hope Drake-Duvall and wing Amanda Konieczny – two very dangerous ballcarriers. Vassar turned it on with four-straight tries to close out the half 38-10. In addition to Baker and Bailey, flanker Mette McKinney also dotted down and flyhalf Zoe Lynch kicked four conversions.
Coast Guard kicked off the second stanza with a lovely Drake-Duvall try, which was set up by Konieczny’s weaving along the sideline. Anna Green added the extras, 38-17. And in the middle of the half, the Bears went back-to-back with Lily Mika and Konieczny scores, 43-31 (Vassar’s Danny White scored the team’s seventh try).
“We had a 30-point margin at one point and then we let our foot off the gas badly,” Brown said. “We got tired and we were walking around and we thought the game was won. So hopefully we ate a good piece of humble pie and we’ll talk to the players and say, ‘It’s never over ‘til it’s over.’”
Baker and Coast Guard flanker Anna Tate added a try apiece for their respective teams, and Vassar banked the 48-38 win. Brown praised the overall team effort, with special callouts for hard-working tighthead prop Andie Aulders and key defense from fullback Jude Robinson.
Vassar will now face UW Eau Claire, a team that the Brewers have never faced before. The Great Waters conference champion won the Midwest Region, but only after a 12-10 nail-biter against Cincinnati in the quarterfinals.
“It gave them a lot of confidence to know they were resilient enough to withstand a very incredible defense – the best one they’ve faced hands down,” UWEC co-head coach Rachel Lange said. “It helped them focus. ‘We have to do this together. Be in a line, be a wall.’ And it showed here today.”
“They had to see death in the mirror and come back from it,” UWEC co-head coach Derek Wagner added. “They turned that switch off, ‘We’ve really got to go now.’ And they feel a lot closer now.”
On Saturday, UWEC faced Great Waters runner-up Univ. Illinois, which had won the West Region to advance to nationals. The teams had recent knowledge of each other but now they were seeing each other on day one, when everyone was at their freshest.
“It was making sure we respected them as a team and that we didn’t overlook them just because we beat them already,” Lange referenced the 43-5 conference championship. “We really emphasized that they’re going to come out hungry and we need to make sure we’re meeting them and stopping some of their strong players.”
Building on some penalty advantages, wing Maggie Behnke took a skip pass into the corner for the game’s first score. And then a yellow card advantage saw UWEC add another two tries from fullback Cerys Ridd and flanker Julia Bancroft. With Izzy Currie’s conversion, the Wisconsin team led 17-0 into the break and then scored right after halftime. Hooker Lily Walrath, who really ran well on the day, took the conversion for the 22-0 lead.
Illinois center Alina Ampeh was one of those standouts that UWEC had pinpointed, and the center was one of several hard carries in the orange kit. Ampeh scored two tries and wing Ella Schuch accounted for Illinois’ three tries.
UWEC did get into some penalty trouble and the 60-minute mark took back-to-back yellow cards. With 13 players on the pitch, lock Calla Dexheimer scored, and Ridd ended the game with a second try: 39-17 the final.
“Our six, Greta Schnur, was fantastic today,” Lange called out standouts. “We gave her some assignments today and she greeted all of those with a passion. She was incredible out there.”
“Izzy Currie was big,” Wagner looked at the backs. “And Cerys Ridd, when she comes to Houston, she turns on her jets. Flips a switch and, ‘I’m going to do the tightrope on the edge and score and go around.’ She helped us change the game and be in good position going into the half.”
Now the 2023 NCR national championship is a showdown between the 2022 NCR titleholder, UWEC, and CRAA’s last DII fall champion, Vassar.
“Seeing Vassar in person versus video was way different to me,” Wagner closed. “They play so quick and they’re strong and they run hard. They run north-south and they’ll punch you in the mouth. There’s a reason why every December they’re playing for whatever championship – ACRA, CRAA, NCR. The Vassar train doesn’t stop.”
Catch it live at 12 p.m. Central.