Familiar faces reach Women’s Division II Fall Championship Semifinals

BOULDER, Colo. - The USA Rugby Women's Division II College Fall Championship Semifinals kick off a championship weekend of rugby in Greenville, S.C., Dec. 5.

From more than 120 teams at the beginning of the fall campaign to the Round of 16 and Quarterfinals in Colorado Springs, Pittsburgh, and Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the battle for a spot in May's DII National Championship match is down to four teams headed to Furman University.

The Semifinals and Finals of the Women's DII Fall Championship and Men's Division II National Championship, as well as the Women's Division I Fall Championship Final, will be streamed live on USA Rugby TV.

Davenport University vs. Bloomsburg University

Saturday, Dec. 5 - 9 a.m. ET

The 2015 DII National Champion, Notre Dame College, earned its place in the title match at Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University with a Fall Championship. Along the way, the Falcons kept the Panthers from Michigan to three points in their Regional Semifinal (Round of 16) clash, just two further matches removed from the Fall Championship.

A year later, Davenport has the Fall Championship in sight. Following a 7-0 run to Regionals in which the Panthers conceded just 15 points - 12 of which came in a redemptive victory against Notre Dame College - Greg Teliczan's team showed its playoff opponents no mercy in making the Semifinals.

"These girls know that if, at any moment, they let off of the gas, teams could creep up and try to take away what they have been working so hard for," the Davenport head coach said. "The dedication to each other and the end goal is what motivates them every single day."

If scoring an average of 79 points during the regular season - boosted by a school-record 158-0 shutout of Saginaw Valley State in the second match of the season - was not enough, the Panthers scored more than 80 points in each of their three playoff victories thus far.

When co-captain Julia Mayer suffered an injury early on in the season, All-American Danielle Ordway helped fill the hole alongside Hannah Tennant. She scored 10 tries wearing No. 13 at the Mid-West Regional in Pittsburgh, but it is the support provided from the other 14 players on the pitch that could very well see Davenport to the Fall Championship Final.

"[Danielle] does have an extremely large impact, but no one player on the team is irreplaceable," Teliczan said. "When our captain went down with a small knee injury, Danielle stepped up and filled in for a few games . . . and we were able to get two big wins versus Kent State and Slippery Rock.

"That's just the way things work with this team; we have so many versatile players that can and have stepped up to play positions they're not familiar with, as well as roles that they're not familiar with. And they always do it - no questions asked - because they know that, no matter what, the other 14 girls out on the pitch have their back."

Hoping to preemptively end Davenport's victory parade is Bloomsburg out of the Mid-Atlantic Rugby Conference, which was also knocked out of last season's Fall Championships in the Regional Semifinals.

The Huskies are coming off of their first-ever MARC Championship, beating Delaware and Kutztown in the Championship Semifinal and Final, respectively, following a 6-0 Pennsylvania Division campaign.

Playing in the northeast can have its downfalls for a few reasons, not least of which is the weather as winter approaches, but the Huskies were able to keep travel to a minimum to stay fresh. Despite score lines heavily favoring Kevin Castner's side throughout the fall, Bloomsburg was able to throw out different roster combinations and game plans to better prepare for the playoffs.

"Overall, the MARC Conference season was very beneficial for us as we were able to work on our overall depth," the head coach said. "It allowed us to try different rosters for each match as we continued to work on a variety of combinations.

"Our success this year comes down to a team-first concept. There is no way we would be here still looking to continue on this fall without it."

Eight different try-scorers propelled Bloomsburg through its Round of 16 and Quarterfinal matches with, as Castner alluded to, front-rower Megan Reilly and inside center Nicole Snyder leading the way with a combined 16 tries in two matches.

Being able to put up 80 points on a team like Davenport may be viewed as one way to better the odds of winning, but it will be just as important to keep the Panthers from scoring 80 points of their own, a fact not lost on the MARC Champions.

"We are preparing for Davenport as we do with every opponent we face: with complete respect," Castner said. "To do otherwise would be foolish. We expect them to bring their best and test us throughout the entire match all over the field. Hopefully we are up to the challenge."

Winona State University vs. Vassar College

Saturday, Dec. 5 - 11 a.m. ET

In one of the busiest weekends of rugby for the Round of 16 and Quarterfinals, Winona State made the lengthy trek from southeast Minnesota to Colorado Springs for the Rockies Regional. The trip was well worth it, as the "Black Katts" demolished the rested Colorado Mesa Mavericks before securing the Semifinal berth with a defeat of Montana State.

It should not come as much of a surprise to fans of the program or women's rugby, as Winona State finished its 2014 fall campaign as runner-up to Fall Champion Notre Dame College. Winning the Northern Lights Conference is an accomplishment in itself, but the Katts want to be in contention for the National Championship.

"We have had some challenges along the way," Winona State Head Coach Josh Krzewinski said. "I'm very proud of how the girls keep their focus day after day and bring their intensity to the match, regardless of opponent. Each week we prepare for our opponent, but also set challenges for ourselves.

"It's never easy losing a match; especially at this level. [The 2014 Fall Championship Final loss] certainly motivated them through the spring and this fall to train harder and work toward getting another shot at playing for a title. But, despite the Notre Dame College match, I think the girls want this bad enough."

A bit of turnover can upend a program, but Winona State is utilizing a strong veteran presence to instill the confidence and skills that produced a second-place team a year ago in younger players. Three or four starters in any given starting XV are freshman or players with little rugby experience, and the mix with upperclassmen - of which 12 have played in a semifinal or championship match in the past three to four years - has formed a "strong team, perhaps stronger than last year," according to Krzewinski.

From a fall 2015-opening defeat of Stony Brook to a heavy shutout of Rutgers' 'B' side in the Tri-State Conference Championship Final to three playoff victories on home turf, Vassar has not lost a match against collegiate competition this season (the lone loss came to a New York Rugby Club development side). Following a visit to the Fall Championship Round of 16 last season, Tony Brown's charges refused to settle for anything less.

"The 2015 team is much more experienced, with four seniors and nine players who have 'been here before,'" the head coach said. "Vassar has more threats this year and is a more balanced team than in 2013 and 2014."

Though the Brewers may not run teams off of the pitch with margins of defeat similar to their fellow Semifinalists, there are danger-players that can strike at any moment. Prop Darienne Jones and inside center Cierra Thomas are just two potent weapons at Vassar's disposal, and they work on opposite ends of the attack.

Vassar cannot boast the same amount of experience Winona State carries into the Semifinal clash in terms of playoff appearances, either, but that does not mean the Brewers should be considered underdogs.

"I certainly hope that we can perform well, and, when we play to our strengths, we usually give a good account of ourselves," Brown said. "It looks like the weather is going to cooperate and the whole squad is seeing this weekend as an opportunity."

The winners of Saturday's matches will play in Sunday's Women's DII Fall Championship Final, scheduled for 11 a.m. ET. The winner of Sunday's match will play the Spring Champion in the USA Rugby Women's Division II College National Championship Final May 7, 2016.