Women’s DII: At end of formidable spring, Fall Champion Davenport ready for National Championship

LAFAYETTE, Colo. - Women's Division II Fall Champion Davenport University has waited five months for a chance to turn its title into National Champion, and finally knows its Saturday, May 7, opponent: University of Southern California.

Tulane University won the Spring Championship April 24 with impressive victories over Salisbury University and Humboldt State University, the runner-up. The Green Wave indicated they could not attend the 2016 USA Rugby College 15s National Championships in Moraga, Calif., and the Trojans, who placed third, accepted the bid.

Back before that weekend in Davis, USC Head Coach Ian Ibbetson said:

"As a team and a squad I just want them to enjoy the experience and see how far they've come, give it their best shot, and leave it all out there. A lot of girls might not even play rugby again because it's their last year [at school]. It could be girls that will never this far again. It's their one chance."

Though it did not go to plan at the Spring Championship, the Trojans will have a chance to become the DII National Champions. In their way, however, is a Davenport squad that has improved any flaws exposed in the Fall Championship Semifinal and Final.

Bloomsburg University kept a strong Panthers forward pack immobile in the December Semifinal with clinical work at the breakdown, and ran out to a 26-5 lead after 40 minutes. Davenport remained calm and recovered in the second half, keeping Bloomsburg out of the try zone to win, 43-26.

Winona State University stuck with the Panthers over the course of the full 80-minute Final, never trailed by more than seven points, and drew level twice in the 27-22 match.

"We've been concentrating on a lot of those things that we were weak on," Head Coach Greg Teliczan said. "I feel we've improved on those areas because you're only as good as your worst player, so to speak. The top 15 out there and seven subs: we're still the same Davenport team, so you have to go with it. Everyone's learning and practicing the same stuff.

"I think we've addressed it quite well."

Davenport did not rest on its laurels in terms of competition outside of the training ground, either, compiling a nine-match spring schedule.

"To be perfectly honest . . . it's been a complete pain in the butt," Teliczan said.

The Panthers conceded 10 points in their Feb. 13 opening match against University of Minnesota - though they hit the century mark with 106 points for - and then shut out their next three opponents before the shortest month of the year was over.

Four matches in two weeks takes a toll on the body, and Davenport's players are no exception. The program also lost several players to graduation prior to the beginning of the spring season, and had just 16 players healthy enough to wear jerseys when it traveled to Marietta, Ga., to challenge Women's D1 Elite's Life University.

The turnover has allowed Teliczan to give younger, more inexperienced players opportunities. Some of the young women are newer to the game of rugby than others, but the head coach did not consider that a problem for a National Championship contender.

"They didn't have a lot of bad habits so we were able to get them into our style of play immediately," Teliczan said. "We've got a lot of players that have never even played rugby before. Teaching them how to pass correctly, tackle correctly, ruck . . . all of the aspects of the game. We don't have to deal with a lot of those issues.

"Plus, we're lucky we have a good base of just natural athletes, too. They come up from different sports so they're natural athletes that pick up the game real quick. They're eager and willing to learn and they're committed. It all adds up."

Life was the only team to get the better of Davenport during the National Championship-preparatory season. After that match, and a week without a scheduled match, the Panthers got back to work with renewed vigor. The Grand Rapids, Mich., school won its only home match of the spring against senior club Grand Rapids Gazelles, and defeated two more women's teams in Cincinnati Rugby Club and Detroit Rugby Club.

If that was not enough, the University of Michigan 7s tournament and Ohio State University 7s tournament - the latter held a week after a match against D1 Elite's Indiana University - provided their own challenges in competition and fitness.

All in all, Davenport will be ready come May 7. The Panthers arrived in Moraga earlier this week to get acclimated to the Golden State's conditions and Pacific Time Zone. While not overlooking USC or the National Championship, Teliczan is excited to see players perform well with an eye towards the 2016-17 team.

"We've had some players that we've been kinda molding into different spots for next year . . . in preparation for the girls leaving," he said. "I feel that the girls that we'll have stepping into those shoes - we're not going to lose too much. As long as we do the basics right and stick to fundamentals we should be fine."

The DII National Championship match will kick off the 2016 USA Rugby College 15s National Championships at 9 a.m. PT. All five matches played at Saint Mary's College Saturday, May 7, will be broadcast live on The Rugby Channel.