Wisconsin’s National Championship title on line in DII matchup with Life West

LAFAYETTE, Colo. - Not a year from its first National Championship title, Wisconsin Women's Rugby will attempt a repeat at the June 4-5 2016 USA Rugby Club National Championships in Glendale, Colo.

Hailing from northern California like last year's runner-up, Life West has an eye on ending Wisconsin's one-year reign atop Division II in the club's first year in the Northern California Conference. The two teams have compiled 27 regular season and playoff wins between them in as many games, but one will have to lose at Infinity Park this weekend.

Wisconsin did fall to DI Finalist Chicago North Shore in a friendly in a jam-packed October, but the loss was mixed between two defeats of the Women's Premier League's Twin Cities Amazons' DII team, as well as a shutout of Conference-bottom Palmer College.

Coach Bob Jafferis previously discussed the club's player turnover following the 2015 title win, from four starters leaving the program to a handful of others that have retired; on top of the remaining players either switching positions to fill gaps or for the betterment of the team as a whole. The second match against Twin Cities was one of the standouts of the fall in terms of figuring out the direction of the team.

"Those two games [against the 'Zons] turned out to be a big part of our roster discovery," Jafferis said. "We weren't a set roster and weren't very cohesive. We were struggling in [that second game]. That was partly our fault but also very much the fact the Amazons are a very good side. They were making us pay for mistakes and pushing us hard all game.

"In the last 20 minutes it was a couple of veteran players that took command of the situation - they were able to get us moving forward and get everyone involved. The game showed the veteran players that they needed to take command of things because the players they had relied on in the past weren't there. It showed they needed to get everyone involved if we were going to win tight games."

Life West coach Alex Houser pointed to Wisconsin having "big-game, Championship experience" in the roster, whereas his team will be full of first-timers to the Final. That is not to say the first-year Gladiatrix do not have experience themselves, as several AIG Women's Collegiate and Junior All-Americans make up the Californians' roster.

No. 8 Jenn Sever is a game-time decision for Houser, coming off of an injury sustained in the Quarterfinal/Semifinal weekend in Tucson, Ariz., while flanker Morgan Rovetti will be out for a while with a broken leg. The likes of capped Eagles front-rower Catherine Benson and fly half Megan Foster, however, bring their international experience to the table. Lock Megan Pinson is also no stranger to big games, having won two high school championships with Fallbrook in southern California and joining two top-level women's collegiate programs in American International and Central Washington. With Life West, the "old in experience" athletes are combining well with young women a bit newer to the game of rugby.

"We have a good core of experienced ladies and some younger girls who are very athletic, some newer to the game than others," Houser said. "That and having the support of the college helps in terms of having dues not be too expensive, getting the support of the sports chiropractic care, and having a gym to work out at."

Wisconsin's tightest game may have been the barn-burning Conference Final against Milwaukee Scylla, a 47-33 decision with all on the line. At Pittsburgh's Founders Field, Charlotte offered less of a challenge in the National Quarterfinal, while Harrisburg failed to truly capitalize on a 14-player opponent and suffered two sinnings of their own in a 31-17 Semifinal defeat.

"[Charlotte and Harrisburg] were different from the teams we are used to and different from each other," Jafferis said. "They forced us to adapt to those differences in each game. We had to make adjustments to our style and tactics until we found things that worked.

"Playing two good teams like that always makes you a better team. Whether it was enough to help us play against a powerhouse like Life West is what we'll find out in the Final."

Closer to the west coast, Kino Sports Complex saw two Life West teams earn Quarterfinal victories. The men had reached the 2014 DIII Final and, despite coming up short, moved up a division in 2015 to win that title. They were again elevated, this time to DI, where reigning Finalist Austin Blacks won the Semifinal matchup.

The women, however, came away winners from the two-day weekend, a new adventure for the first-year team. The Gladiatrix smothered Ventura County, 62-12, but not after the Outlaws "pushed" Life West to perform at its best.

"That was a good scenario and pressure for the girls to be under," Houser said. "The girls handled it really well, made the necessary adjustments, and put in a pretty good performance on the Sunday. It's good to see their positive reaction to that distress that they faced on the Saturday."

Because of the perceived lack of strength in its Conference, Life West has had to be creative. Like several women's programs gearing up for one-and-done Championship play, the 'Trix welcomed some of the successful men's team to training throughout the season.

"Having that kind of 'brother team' in the men . . . helps the training environment and raises the stress we're able to put the girls under at practice each week," Houser said.

Going up against Wisconsin, there are no illusions that past form will mean nothing when the whistle blows at Infinity Park.

"They're going to be - far and away - the best team we've played this season," Houser said of Wisconsin. "They look like a very strong team across the board with not a lot of glaring weaknesses, so we've kind of just focused these last couple weeks on really trying to nail down the details of what we want to do and haven't necessarily installed a lot of adjustments or tweaks or anything like that. They're a quality team."

Score lines and names on the roster aside, it will probably be Wisconsin under pressure this weekend. Not many teams earn their spot in a Final to protect the title they won the season prior, not to mention Champions that deal with the kind of roster management Wisconsin has had.

As much as the team will be looking to return home with hardware in hand for the second consecutive season, the important thing to Jafferis and Co. is that the girls have fun when they are on the pitch. Facing a team that has scored an average of 74 points per game, player attitude may mean the difference between hung heads and a hoisted trophy.

"I told players last fall that, if their only reason for coming back was to win another championship, they should go away," Jafferis said. "We are, first and foremost, a club. We do not exist to only win games and championships. I'm not against winning but it has to be secondary to the fact we are playing a game, and playing games should be fun.

"One of the players remarked at our last practice about how much fun this season has been. That summed it up for me.

"We've tried to prepare ourselves [for the Final] the best we can. We worked hard at every aspect of the game and did more conditioning. Until we play we won't know if we worked hard enough. We did finish the last practice of with some cheap fireworks and a good laugh - just needed to remind ourselves it's about having fun."

Fun will be had from 3 p.m. MT Saturday, June 4, when the Women's Division II National Champion will be crowned. All five title bouts at Infinity Park will be streamed live for free on The Rugby Channel, and tickets are available at $10 per day ($5 for children).