Storied clubs fill out Men’s DII Semifinal table

BOULDER, Colo. - Tradition. Each of the 2015 Men's Division II National Championship Semifinalists is steeped in it.

Saturday, Dec. 5, Minnesota-Duluth will need to get past a salty rival in Salisbury University in order to defend its back-to-back National Championship titles, while 2014 runner-up Wisconsin-Whitewater will have its hands full with a Semifinal matchup against Towson University.

The highly-anticipated Semifinal fixtures, as well as the Dec. 6 Championship Final, will be aired live on USA Rugby TV.

Towson University vs. University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Saturday, Dec. 5 - 1 p.m. ET

2011 Men's DII National Champion Wisconsin-Whitewater came up just short of hoisting another trophy last fall. A dominant 2014 playoff run took the Warhawks all the way to the title game, where they were ultimately halted by Minnesota-Duluth, 24-14. Even more impressive, while also slightly unfortunate for Whitewater, is the fact the team reached the Cup Final of the first-ever DII College 7s National Championship less than five months later, only to fall to James Madison University.

"The sevens experience improved our back play, which helps in 15s, but it's a different mindset," said Whitewater Head Coach Pat O'Connor of last year's impressive season. "Our experience playing against a worthy champion like Duluth has tested the team's toughness. We know what it takes to beat teams of that caliber."

That experience will be needed before a potential rematch with Duluth. Its semifinal opponent, Towson, is no stranger to the big stage and has the Warhawks' undivided attention.

"We know Towson has a great tradition," admired O'Connor. "They are experienced at this level and play in a tough conference. We need our forwards to play their game and give our backs a chance to work their game. It comes down to basic rugby: execution, adjustments, tackling, ball-handling, and a will to win."

Towson is thrilled to be back in the Semifinals. After reaching the Semifinals in 2012 and 2013, only to be bounced by Salisbury on both occasions, the Tigers were sent packing in the 2014 Quarterfinal round following a 17-6 defeat at the hands of James Madison.

This year, Towson has already displayed championship-like resolve. After a 23-point loss to nemesis Salisbury in the Potomac Rugby Conference's regular season, the Tigers reversed the result in a big way by beating the Sharks in the PRC Championship, 13-10.

Both teams are coming off of Nov. 21 Round of 16 matches in which they coasted to victories, and a Nov. 22 Quarterfinal when Towson and Whitewater won by just 13 points combined. The Warhawks, who breezed through their WIIL Rugby Conference schedule, are pleased for the 31-21 test Rhode Island put them through in the Quarters.

"Rhode Island was a worthy opponent with big, tough forwards," recalled O'Connor. "We had to adjust to their pressure, and the team stepped up."

If Whitewater enjoyed the physicality and pressure applied by Rhode Island, it will thoroughly appreciate what should be a tightknit battle against Towson.

University of Minnesota-Duluth vs. Salisbury University

Saturday Dec. 5 - 3 p.m. ET

Since dropping the Men's DII National Championship Final to Salisbury in May of 2013, the Fighting Penguins of Minnesota-Duluth have been on a special run.

Loaded with a deep group of local talent, many of whom played together prior to getting to Duluth, the Fighting Penguins haven't dropped a DII match since their Championship defeat at the hands of Salisbury. The unblemished two-year mark includes a fall 2013 National Championship win over Salisbury, and last year's 24-14 victory against Whitewater to claim a second consecutive DII National Championship.

Duluth hasn't missed a beat since receiving its Championship medals last season. Once again, the Fighting Penguins have swept through its conference schedule and Regional Playoffs untarnished, all the while doing so with brute force and a mental toughness few squads can match.

"That mentality comes from the personnel that we have and the style of rugby that we play," explained Duluth's lead man and 2015 USA Rugby Coach of the Year Jeramy Katchuba.

The team doesn't shy away from contact in training either, which makes their punishing tackles on Saturdays second nature.

"We don't use a lot of pads in practice, and treat all situations with a game mentality," Katchuba described. "We keep players in motion, with lots of reps and heavy contact throughout practice. So, by the time we get to the games on weekends, they should be easy."

On the shortlist of teams, regardless of division, that have the mental fortitude to stand toe to toe with the reigning champs is Salisbury. Owners of four National Championships themselves, the Sharks have a storied history winning a lot of rugby matches, and doing so with a bone-crunching style that runs deeper than its current compliment of players.

"It's the culture of Salisbury Rugby, and our alumni will hold us to it," Coach Bill Creese said.

Its physical, yet expansive style surprisingly fell short of last year's Semifinals after falling by just three points to Notre Dame College in the Quarters. While every Sharks team enters its fall campaign with Championship expectations, the team admits they might be slightly more motivated this year after falling short of the 2014 Championship weekend.

"Ever year we come in hungry, however, most of the guys on this team know how it felt last year when we missed taking the elite eight game to overtime by inches, and also what it felt like to lose to Duluth in the Finals," said Creese. "So, both of those have added a little more energy to this team."

Don't let all of this talk about physicality fool you - these teams are skilled and they can run. Duluth, especially, has the ability to speed up the pace on attack with one of the best fly halves in the country, Trace Bolstad, orchestrating its offense.

"Having Trace at the 10 definitely allows us to change our game plan," complimented Katchuba. "He understands the flow of the game, and has the skill level to help make adjustments as needed.

"He allows us to play a tight style of ball, or we can go from sideline to sideline, if needed. He also has a great foot to use strategically, or to get us out of tough situations."

Speaking of timely kicking, Katchuba notes that while the Sharks' bullish style is unmistakable, they too have the competence to apply pressure using the boot, as well.

"The other thing that they do well is play kick-and-chase rugby," noted Katchuba. "Most teams at the DII level struggle with this style of rugby. They are very effective at it, and it is very hard to prepare for as you don't face many teams like that during the course of the year."

What should make the Dec. 5 Semifinal contest a must-see, other than the caliber of teams competing, is the familiarity these two have with one another.

"Duluth plays a very good forwards game, and keeps it tight until they have forced you to bring in more bodies, and then they make you pay for it with their backs," Creese explained.

The winning sides from Saturday's Semifinals will play Dec. 6 at 3 p.m. ET for the 2015 Men's DII National Championship. The Semifinals, as well as Sunday's Championship Final, will be broadcast live on USA Rugby TV.