Women’s DI: Davis seeks ‘home’ win over Virginia in Spring Championship

LAFAYETTE, Colo. - The Aggies of University of California, Davis, may have some sense of a home crowd at the 2016 USA Rugby Women's Division I Spring Championship Final Saturday, May 7, but University of Virginia will have its own supporters section at Saint Mary's Stadium in Moraga, Calif.

While the Cavaliers had to travel to Atlanta for the Quarterfinals and Semifinals at the East Regional, Davis stayed home to host the West Regional last month. The crowd played a bit part in the Aggies' combined, 79-5, shellacking of Washington State University and Chico State University, however, as Gary Gordon's side overcame physical and mental obstacles to upend the Cougars and Wildcats.

"The mental pressure of the playoff weekend, producing in front of your home fans is a bonus," the head coach said. "Both of those games, for different reasons, were difficult."

"I think Washington State was the most physical game we've had to play this season just because we were so outmatched as far as size. Washington State was, across the board, bigger than us, and it took us a while to adjust to that and get into our own groove again."

If Davis has gotten the better of opponents of a greater size deep into the playoffs, Virginia has prepared in the best way with its alumni. Not only is a sizable group headed to Saint Mary's College for the Spring Championship Final, capped Women's Eagles Erica Cavanaugh and other former Cavaliers, along with members of the college's men's team, scrimmaged Nancy Kechner's young women Sunday, May 1.

Virginia wanted one final exam of its technical application in the tackle area heading into the encounter with Davis after having played - and beaten - University of North Carolina three times this season, including in the April 10 Semifinal.

"We pretty much based our entire season about beating UNC," the head coach said last week. The Cavaliers also won the Mason-Dixon Conference at the expense of the Tar Heels. "We knew we'd have to go through them, and we had to get ready to play them; just playing bigger, harder people.

"Scrimmaging against our alumni and some of the men's team - it's going to be beat-up time. Once you've tackled a dude, tackling a lady is no problem. And if you don't have a game before the game you're going to be flat, so we needed a game. After Atlanta we took a week off and sort of ramped up practices the week after."

The determined Aggies said, "Goodbye," to the previous season's captain, and full back, a position Gordon calls a "pretty integral part of your defensive system," but did not miss a step in reaching the Final with a single loss to Women's D1 Elite's Central Washington University.

The wide win margins were not exclusive to the April 9 and 10 Quarterfinal and Semifinal victories, either. In fact, Davis - after spending a week, much like Virginia, getting healthy - has spent the majority of training sessions focused on its defensive systems.

"This is difficult when you play teams out of your area that you don't get to see; you can't really concern yourself with what they do," Gordon said. "You have to focus on doing what you have to do. So mostly we've done a lot of going over defensive structures and launching together, making sure we're tackling behind the gain line. A lot of defense. Our offense has been pretty potent this year so we're not overly worried about that.

"We've scored a tremendous amount of points, but it's the defensive part we need to make sure we're on the same page and have everything - all the little kinks - worked out.

"Because of our size - really any team we go up against we're a smaller team - I think they try to make up for that with the aggression and attitude. I think they want to prove that they can be just as physical and just as aggressive. They have a little chip on their shoulder and they want to show they can do the same thing that the bigger people can do."

A similarity between the two teams is the chemistry within the respective squads. The Aggies have a large group of influential juniors, on the field and off of it, back from the previous year's team. Davis set its sights on a successful season in the standings and in the trophy cabinet.

"So here we are," Gordon said. "They set pretty high goals at the beginning of the year and they believed in it. They've done everything they've set out to do."

There is, of course, one more thing to do: beat Virginia for the Spring Championship. The Cavaliers, however, match the Aggies' collective spirit in spades with an abundance of third-year student-athletes, led by captains Zoe Schmitt and Christina Haney.

"Two years ago we broke all of our players and didn't make nationals," Kechner said. "The first-year players got all the playing time because we had no one else. So we just built on that, got close [to each other]. Those players have had three good years of full-time playing.

"Our captains are both really sane and really set an example in their play, and are very positive. They said, 'We want to go to California.' [The players] spent a lot of time with each other. They were like, 'That is our goal. We'll do whatever it takes to get to California.'"

As in any title bout, there is plenty of mutual respect - as well as a sliver of confidence - between the two contenders. In addition to the obvious implications of the result, there is legitimate elation for another high-quality rugby match.

"The last few times we've gone to the [Round of 16] we've had to go to Ohio so it's incredibly special to kind of do it in your own backyard," Gordon said. "The girls are pumped about staying in California and driving an hour and 10 minutes versus getting on a plane, especially since your fans can be there."

"We're so excited to play them," Kechner said. "I've never seen them play. I heard they play wide-open rugby and that their centers are really good. We have good centers.

"It's so fun to play a different team, and different teams that haven't played us before. It's that 'Damn UVA' style. We're kind of unpredictable; we don't play any sort of pattern of play. We'll attack space, we'll go over you, we'll try to go through you, and we'll go around. My kids are small and they can run all day."

The DI Spring Championship will close out the 2016 USA Rugby College 15s National Championship Saturday with a 5 p.m. PT kickoff. All five matches from Saint Mary's College will be broadcast live on The Rugby Channel, beginning with the Women's Division II National Championship at 9 a.m. PT.