Two Club Playoff sites to determine Women’s DI Finalists

LAFAYETTE, Colo. - Three quarters of the Women's Division I Club Quarterfinalists are returnees from the 2015 postseason, including last year's National Champion Seattle Saracens. One half of the May 21-22 Round of Eight will compete at Pittsburgh's Founders Field, where Beantown Rugby, Boston Rugby, Chicago North Shore, and Raleigh Venom will contend for a place in the title game, while the western Playoffs at Kino Sports Complex in Tucson, Ariz., will see the Austin Valkyries, Denver Black Ice, Santa Monica Dolphins, and Seattle battle for a place in the June 4 Final.

Chicago has had Finals footy on its mind since a loss in the 2014 DI National Championship to Oregon Sports Union Rugby.

"It's a constant," North Shore coach and captain Christiane Pheil said when asked how often a return to the Final has been on her team's mind. "When we lost to ORSU back in 2014, we played as individuals. That strategy doesn't work for us. We have never been a team of hot-shot players - North Shore rugby is all about playing as 15, and it doesn't rely on the skills and successes of individuals."

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Chicago will need to continue to play the team-oriented rugby that helped it win a Midwest title against a very good Beantown team in the Quarterfinals. The 2015 Finalist was undefeated heading into its Atlantic North Final against Boston, which it dropped, 23-10. However, Beantown bounced back nicely the next weekend by topping Northern Virginia Rugby to earn the final spot in the quarterfinals.

"Beantown is still infused with the WPL physicality and speed that they had two years ago," analyzed Pheil. "They have strong runners, and work really well together from No. 1 to No. 15. They are organized in both their attack and defense, and finding ways to break both of those systems down."

The other side of the eastern Women's DI bracket pits the only quarterfinalists that did not complete in National Playoffs a season ago - Boston and Raleigh. After two regular season losses to Beantown, Boston got the better of its conference rival May 7 to reach National Playoffs. There is potential for a fourth encounter between the two sides in the May 22 Semifinal, so Boston is not quite ready to detail how it upended Beantown, but it did have to do with a style of play that is just now taking shape.

"In rugby, systems take time to implement and in our case it took a year to get everything working," said Boston Head Coach Arturo Bravo Nuevo.

As uplifting a win over previously-unbeaten Beantown was, Boston understands Raleigh will present plenty of challenges, and the team has long been focused on the next task at hand.

"They are a dynamic team with solid set pieces," complimented Nuevo of the Mid-Atlantic Champions. "They have a good fly half and very good centers. It will be challenging to close the space and make sure that there are no gaps in our defense. They are in the quarterfinals for a reason."

In Arizona, a Semifinal rematch from 2015 between Santa Monica and Seattle will draw plenty of attention. The Saracens return to Club Playoffs after a solid campaign in the BCRU Women's Premier League, and have even added some reinforcements from last year's National Championship team. Still, the Dolphins have no qualms going into a must-win situation against a team that beat them 47-0 less than 12 months ago.

"We know that Seattle will be a tough opponent, and last year proved to be a learning experience," said Santa Monica Head Coach Erica Sin. "The great thing about our squad is that as our competition gets tougher, so does our level of play. We've trained hard and competed fiercely to come back to this level. We're excited for the opportunity to play Seattle again, this time with fresh legs and to play the best rugby we can."

With capped Eagles like Ashley Kmiecik, Naima Reddick, and Kelsi Stockert roaming the park for the Saracens, Seattle might have an advantage in individual talent, but Santa Monica is playing with a great deal of team chemistry it hopes to benefit from in the Playoffs.

"The beauty of our team is that we not only love playing this sport, but we love playing with each other," added Sin. "We'll carry that into this weekend and hopefully come out with a victory."

Like the Dolphins, the Black Ice would not mind another crack at Seattle after losing to the Saracens in the 2015 Quarterfinals, but first Denver will have to get by Austin. A second-place finish in the Red River last year sent the Valkyries into the Division II Playoffs. This year, Austin was dominant on its way to a conference title - placing the squad into the top division of Club Playoffs.

"They had some really solid players," Black Ice Head Coach Jon Mooney said of the Valkyries. "They like to play a fast game and their forwards are tenacious. I coached their No. 8, Sara Parsons, at last summer's NASC. She's a strong, smart player, and always a threat. They also have a good kicker, which always provides an added threat. Their backs have some speed, so keeping an eye on their movement and insertions will be key."

Fortunately for Denver, the team has once again completed a difficult slate of nonconference matches that included games against North Shore, Twin City Amazons, and a very strong Glendale Raptors developmental side.

"We try to test ourselves against the best competition we can get in order to see which parts of our game need work," said Mooney. "Playing a lesser team may give my team a confidence boost, but it doesn't sufficiently test our structures, fitness, and composure. It is only through playing higher-level teams that we can find those holes in our play and develop."

All Women's DI matches will be streamed live from Arizona and Pennsylvania on USA Rugby TV except for the consolation match scheduled for Sunday in the west location. More details related to the broadcast and broadcast schedule can be found here.

Of the eight teams competing this weekend, only two will move on to the Women's DI Final at the 2016 USA Rugby Club National Championships June 4-5, hosted at Glendale's Infinity Park.