Virginia Tech is heading to its first USA Rugby DI College Spring Championship after winning the eastern portion of the regional playoffs last weekend. The Hokies defeated Mason-Dixon rival UVA and last year’s spring runner-up, Central Florida, in Greenville, N.C. The Blacksburg, Va., team will now return to North Carolina in fewer than two weeks to face BYU in the May 4 final.
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The weekend started with UVA, a familiar opponent. Tech had won the two previous 15s matches, but did not take any hubris into the regional quarterfinal.
“We did a lot of homework on UVA,” said Virginia Tech forwards coach Mick Lee. “They’re a really physical side with huge props and a big pack. We knew we had to play them really smart and built a game plan based on what we knew of them.”
Video analysis supported the use of a tactical kicking game, the orchestration of which relied on flyhalf Kirn Kaur and outside center Jetta Owens. On game day, a howling wind cut across the East Carolina University pitches, and Tech elected to have the wind at its back for the first half. The kick was on and a good territory game evolved. Owens, Kaur (2), No. 8 Amelia Griese and wing Nadja Ross dotted down tries, while Owens kicked two conversions.
UVA dug itself a hole, losing a player to a red card and then minutes later incurring a yellow card for a deeper disadvantage. Although flyhalf Hannah Kirk Nass was able to add a penalty kick during that time, Tech saw two of its first-half tries evolve: 29-3 into the break.
“The message in the second half was that we basically had to hold them out,” Lee said. “It was hard – you couldn’t kick into the wind so we had to keep possession as best we could and try to run the ball out of our territory.”
UVA then deployed its kicking game, and it was Tech’s turn to contend with the abnormally large in-goals, approximately 22 meters deep in Lee’s estimation.
“It was a whole other back field to defend,” the coach said. “Our fullback [Anya Fisher] was deep and kept an eye on the ball, but UVA had a good kick-chase and was able to pin us, too. There were some quick penalties and other things we couldn’t hold off.”
UVA clawed back and put forwards Zahra Nemrouri, Emily Battle and prop Robin Watkins into the try zone. Emma Auld added a conversion, 29-20, with 10 minutes to go.
Despite the closing point differential, Lee described a clam, confident team during those final minutes, one that held on for the victory.
“That win was great. It was such a physical game, as it always is,” Lee said. “We were holding our breath a bit at the end of the game, checking to make sure there were no major injuries. They were just delighted.”
Meanwhile, Central Florida eliminated James Madison 73-5 to advance to the spring semifinal.
“We didn’t know much about UCF other than they had a strong forward pack with some serious athletes, and had a big ball-running game,” Lee said. “We knew heading into this weekend that we were going to play two physical games, and our group is a little bit undermanned in terms of size. But we’re really fit and mobile, and this group tends to bat above its weight.
“We’ve also worked really hard to create depth in a lot of positions, so that paid off for us,” Lee said of the ability to make quality substitutions.
Central Florida and Virginia Tech have some post-season history and have even played each other in tournaments like Savannah St. Patty’s. The Knights have held the historical edge.
“The message was to keep our discipline through the game. And we wanted to play really expansive against them,” Lee said. “Our point of difference as a group is skill. We don’t really have those players who can bash over the line.”
After 70 minutes, the Hokies held a 29-0 lead, and then UCF snapped the shutout through Eva Esperanza and Christina Norma (Julia Mortellaro added a conversion). Owens, who led the day with 14 points, split those UCF scores with a try, while Griese and inside center Gabrielle Vitale accounted for two tries apiece in the 34-5 win.
Lee praised the forwards’ work on defense, especially tackling those big UCF ballcarriers in the fringe, and the whole team’s skillful performance.
“The back line really fired and worked through our systems,” Lee said. “They’ve played together a lot and were able to manipulate their backline. Our strong ballcarriers broke the line. They passed into space. They worked hard at isolating the defense and then passing out at the right time.”
Virginia Tech is now heading to its first-ever spring championship final.
“The girls were amazed,” Lee said. “It’s been a really long season for us and to be in the final, for them, they’re ecstatic. I think some self belief is coming out of it. They knocked over a couple of big powerhouse teams to get there.”
Players are now in recuperation mode as they ready for BYU, which defeated Stanford 65-0 and UC Santa Barbara 49-7 out west, in the title bout. Lee noted that it’s always tough when an opponent drops down from a higher level – which is the case for the former DI Elite Cougars – but that the team is simply happy to be in a position where it can challenge for a spring title.
“For me, looking at this team, they’re just the greatest group of workers. They’re just loving their rugby right now,” Lee said. “It’s an exceptional group with the greatest sportsmanship. They’re pretty special.”
The spring championship weekend is just one game for the DI teams, so the Saturday, May 4 final will feature two rested teams. The DII spring colleges will contest a final four, Friday-Saturday, in naming a champion.