New faces spring into Women's Gold Cup action

Saturday’s contests will see Midwest’s first-place Chicago take on Mid-Atlantic’s second-place NOVA, while Midwest No. 2 Detroit will do battle with Mid-Atlantic table toppers Raleigh later in the afternoon.

LAFAYETTE, Colo. - The Rugby Gold Cup between senior men's Midwest Premiership and Red River Conference, which the Dallas Reds clinched last weekend, is not the only Gold Cup competition on the club rugby calendar. The top-two sides from the Women's Mid-Atlantic and Midwest conferences will compete in four cross-conference fixtures April 8-9 at the Poole Road Rugby Complex in Raleigh, NC.

Gold Cup competitors Chicago North Shore and Northern Virginia Rugby are prepared for additional cross-conference competition after taking on New England Conferences Beantown and Boston Rugby in the fall. The New England sides won't be involved this weekend, but Detroit Rugby and Raleigh Venom will. The Venom are getting their first taste of Gold Cup rugby after being unavailable for fall fixtures, while Detroit enters the fray after the Minnesota Valkyries bowed out.

Saturday's contests will see Midwest's first-place Chicago take on Mid-Atlantic's second-place NOVA, while Midwest No. 2 Detroit will do battle with Mid-Atlantic table toppers Raleigh later in the afternoon.

North Shore didn't kickoff its 2017 season until last weekend's defeat of Wisconsin Rugby. The 2016 Women's Division I National Championship finalists are coming off a perfect 8-0 fall campaign that included Gold Cup wins over Beantown and Boston by a combined 66-16. NOVA hasn't faced the perianal Division I power in a few years, but the team is prepping for a dogfight based on previous years' results.

"We have great respect for their program. They have proved themselves to be one of the top DI teams consistently over the years," complimented NOVA Head Coach Brian Walker. "What I remember about them from years past was their physical size up front and excellent defensive structure, combined with a very underrated backline capable of exploiting space if given a chance."

Making North Shore even tougher will be the return of one of their biggest assets on and off the pitch - Women's Eagles loose forward Christiane Pheil. The Penn State graduate, who balances duel roles of player and coach for Chicago, heads back to her club team after starting both of the Eagles Can-Am test matches against Canada.

Pheil is one of many North Shore women the Mid-Atlantic teams will be wise to mark this weekend. Lauren Trout is veteran playmaker in the centers and Devon Gold has proved to be a danger woman on the wing. The former UCONN standout already has an eye-popping 13 tries on the season.

"They are very talented across the pitch and can use their size and power on offense to a huge advantage," noted Raleigh Forwards Coach Mike Streicker, who got an up-close look of Chicago during the Venom's National Semifinal loss to North Shore.

The other Midwest Gold Cup participant doesn't quite hold the decorated history of North Shore, but are in the midst of the terrific season nonetheless. Detroit carries a 5-1 record and the team's lone defeat is to Chicago North Shore. The side from the Motor City jumpstarted the spring portion of its season with a 31-17 win over Chicago Rugby two weeks ago in a contest that saw full back Lindsey Mancini collect a hat trick of tries.

"We have a couple of players with ties to the Midwest area who tell me that in addition to having good athletes, they are aggressive and physical, and that they are competitive in the Midwest year-in and year-out," explained Walker of Detroit. "So we anticipate a strong challenge in both matches."

Raleigh's representation at an elite-level competition might produce a few head scratchers. After all, the Venom were playing Division II rugby just two years ago. However, the club's first foray in Division I equated to a 9-0 record before succumbing to Chicago North Shore in the National Semifinals last spring.

"The entire team realized last year that they could play at a very high level, both individually and as a unit," Streicker said. "They have progressed past the 'excited to be in the playoffs' stage, and the goal this year is to win the D1 National Championship. The players have pushed themselves since the summer with extra practice, camps, all-star games, scheduling difficult opponents out of conference and individual workouts with this goal in mind."

Backline standouts Tonya Fletcher, Chelsea Garber and Jen Larrimore have helped guide the team to D1 prominence and continue to be in excellent form. In the forwards, Raleigh's backrow trio Caitlin Davis, Cerrin Eldridge and Kayla Thompson have "come into their own this spring and changed the pace of both our offensive and defensive structures," according to Streicker.

After reaching the Cup Quarterfinals of the 2016 Club 7s National Championships, NOVA is having another strong 15s campaign. The squad has a dynamic weapon in center Abby Gustaitis and recent James Madison graduate Kayla Cook has come on strong in the engine room, recording tries in both the team's March fixtures. Still, the strength of the program remains in the team's reliable numbers.

"We have quite a large pool of players who have contributed to our D1 side this year. Over 30 have played a D1 match this year and we have needed every one of them," assessed Walker. "So squad depth and positional flexibility has been key for us and will continue to be for us moving forward this spring."

Two Midwest Conference games remain for both Chicago North Shore and Detroit, meaning North Shore's current five-point lead over Detroit can be made up. In the Mid-Atlantic, an April 22 contest pitting NOVA against Raleigh is the lone conference games remaining for the two sides, and a bonus point win for NOVA could swing the conference title in its favor. Still, both teams have already clinched spots in the MAC Championships but the No. 1 seed is still in the balance. No doubt both clubs are gunning for a Mid-Atlantic regular season crown, but the game between NOVA and Raleigh on the 22nd is in no way a distraction from this weekend's Gold Cup matches.

"I think the bigger focus this weekend is on dealing with two games in two days on very shot turnaround against high quality competition," Walker added. "We want to test our depth against quality opposition to see how we recover from day one to day two, and to see who is ready to take that step up in competition."


Rugby Gold Cup Schedule

Northern Virignia v. Chicago North Shore - Saturday, April 8
Raleigh Venom v. Detroit Rugby - Saturday, April 8
Northern Virginia v. Detroit Rugby - Sunday, April 9
Raleigh Venom v. Chicago North Shore - Sunday, April 9