Plenty of postseason experience returns to Women’s DII Club Quarterfinals

LAFAYETTE, Colo. - Eight teams remain in the hunt for the 2016 Women's Division II National Championship, as each prepares for Quarterfinals and Semifinals May 21-22 at Pittsburgh's Founders Field and Tucson, Ariz.,'s Kino Sports Complex.

Battling both the desert heat and postseason competition in Arizona will be Houston Athletic, Kansas City Jazz, Life West Gladiatrix, and Ventura County Lady Outlaws. In the eastern half of the Quarterfinals, reigning National Champion Wisconsin Rugby will contest with Burlington Rugby, Charlotte Rugby, and Harrisburg Rugby for a place at the June 4 Women's DII title game.

Life West is the only team in a very experienced western bracket that did not compete in the 2015 Club Playoffs, yet the Gladiatrix might be the most feared team in the field. The second-year club out of Hayward, Calif., has been obliterating teams that stand in its way. Most recently, Life West toppled the Bend Lady Roughriders, 112-0, for the Pacific North seed to Nationals.

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Pacific South Champion Ventura should provide much more resistance than the Roughriders. The Lady Outlaws rectified their only two losses by beating San Fernando Valley and the Tucson Lightning in recent weeks, and have shown continued improvement as the season has progressed.

"As the season has gone on, we've gained a few impact players that were not with us at the beginning, specifically lock Corey Lott, flanker Rachelle Garcia, and outside center Yui Kawakatsu," explained player/coach Julie Gould. "On the same note, many of the girls who were with the club from the first match have continued to improve, particularly players like Desiree Leaupepe, who stepped into a new role for herself at scrum half."

Although Ventura has seen steady improvement over recent months, the team knows it will not be favored against an impressive Life West side - which does not bother the battle-tested Lady Outlaws.

"We certainly feel like the underdog, but that's a spot we've been in before and we don't mind it," confirmed Gould. "I've stressed to my girls the importance of not letting their (Life West) previous scores distract us from building our game plan. We have to go into this with the mindset that it's just another rugby match."

The other half of the western playoffs will see Kansas City battle Houston. Last year, Houston contended for a DI title while Austin was in contention for a DII crown after Houston's first-place finish in the Red River ahead of the Valkyries. This season, Austin overtook Houston in the Red River, swapping the teams' postseason pathways in 2016.

"I definitely think our team benefitted from the experience of Division I competition last year," Houston player/coach Nick James said. "Many of our team goals this year were based off of that experience. It gave us a better idea of what we need to do as a collective whole to be more competitive. It also motivated several players to develop both their fitness and their individual skills."

Houston will need its experience from playing in last year's DI Playoffs because Kansas City is entering the Quarterfinals in fine form. The Jazz coasted to the Frontier title following an undefeated season in the Mid-American Conference, and postseason victories against Kansas State and the Boulder Babes by a combined 129-5.

"Based on what I have heard and the few players that I know, I expect to see a hard-hitting, aggressive team looking to capitalize on every little mistake," James suggested of the Jazz

Wisconsin appears even stronger a year after it hoisted the 2015 National Championship trophy. After an undefeated conference season, Wisconsin claimed the Midwest's place in Nationals with postseason wins against Buffalo and league rival Milwaukee Scylla. Still, Wisconsin will not sniff a repeat it cannot get past its Quarterfinal foe - Charlotte.

After missing Nationals due to a five-point defeat against the Augusta Furies, Charlotte made good on its mission to get to the Quarterfinals with South Championship victories over Fort Miami and the Nashville Stone Lions.

"The differences are mostly in attitude and mindset," Charlotte Head Coach Bradley Richard said of the team's improvement this season. "Working with [sports psychology consultant and USA Rugby Coach Educator] Katie Wurst has had a profound effect on the psychological aspect of our game and training, which allows us to make visible improvements in the physical realm, as well."

The Southern champions will have plenty of support as the Men of Charlotte will be at Founders Field in an attempt to secure a place in the Men's DII National Championship match. The abundance of backing will be needed given the difficult Quarterfinal draw of the defending National Champions.

"We approach all challenges as opportunities to grow and learn, no matter the outcome," said Richard of facing Wisconsin. "So, whether we win or lose on the scoreboard, this will be a massive step forward in our development and will only benefit us. With that said, I never want to prepare a team to lose - so we will play all out, and let the chips fall where they may."

Burlington finds itself back in the National Quarterfinals a year after being bounced in the very same round by eventual National Champion Wisconsin, 26-15. As it did a season ago, Burlington has relied on a sturdy defense en route to Nationals. This season, the team from Vermont did not allow more than 19 points in a single game on its way to an Atlantic North Championship.

Burlington's Quarterfinal foe, Harrisburg, passed a stiff test to reach Nationals, and will not back down from Burlington. A 34-5 win over the Doylestown Dragons placed Harrisburg in the Mid-Atlantic Final, where it was tasked with getting past an undefeated Brandywine Riot squad that handed Harrisburg its lone loss of the season - a 26-12 loss back in October. With a spot in the Quarterfinals at stake, Harrisburg used a strong second half to upend its conference rival, and punch a ticket to Pittsburgh.

"The game was not about revenge, but more our total squad focused on reaching Nationals," said Harrisburg Head Coach Adi Horrell.

Now that Nationals have been booked and the Quarterfinals are in sight, Harrisburg knows that the hard work begins this weekend.

"One thing as a coach I learnt a long time ago is never underestimate your opposition," Horrell added. "Burlington made it to Nationals last year, and we should respect that they have done this back-to-back seasons."

Every match from Pittsburgh's eastern portion of the Club Playoffs, including Sunday's consolation matches, will be broadcast on USA Rugby TV, while 16 of 20 playoff matches in Tucson will be aired live on USA Rugby TV, as well. The lone Women's DII match that will not air is Saturday's Quarterfinal between Houston and Kansas City. Additional information on the broadcast of Club Playoffs can be found here.

The two teams able to navigate through the Quarterfinals and Semifinals unscathed will meet for the 2016 Women's DII National Championship at the June 4-5 USA Rugby Club Championships at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo.