Club Saturday Six Pack: Formative Round for 2019 Lies Ahead

All of the Midwest Championship games will be held by the Chicago Blaze Rugby Club. The fields provided by the Blaze continue to be some of the best kept grounds in all of American rugby. The grounds have become the spiritual home of the Midwest Championships, having hosted the event countless times, as well as the Firehouse 7s tournament; which routinely acts as one of the preeminent tournaments in the Club 7s circuit. The facilities are expertly managed by Al Klemp and they help foster the attitude and environment that encapsulates what community rugby is all about. It is a fitting stage for an exciting weekend of club rugby.

 Chicago Blaze Rugby

Midwest Men's Division II Championship: Wisconsin Rugby vs. Cleveland Crusaders:
Two old foes meet again this weekend, but this time there is more than just bragging rights on the line, when Wisconsin Rugby takes on the Cleveland Crusaders. This time they will be playing for a chance to represent the Midwest and compete for the national title. Both teams have gone undefeated against Midwest opponents this year, although that does come with a slight caveat. Wisconsin have gone 8-0-1 over the season, and their one draw came in their very first match. For the Crusaders, they have gone 7-2 on the season, but their two losses came at the hands of an Atlantic North team, Buffalo. As they both walk into the weekend they have a very clear sense who they are and what has got them this far.

"Getting guys to adhere to the team game plan," has been the secret to Wisconsin's eight game winning streak according to Phil Winkler. "So that we when we have roster changes everyone is on the same page regardless of who plays on Saturday," Winkler continued. The internal knowledge of their game plan has been of vital importance. Through the season only 10 players participated in every regular season match for Wisconsin. The flexibility and resilience this demonstrates will play a major factor in Saturday's championship match, as they will feel comfortable no matter what adversity they are tasked with overcoming.

Cleveland, similarly attributes much of their success this year to players feeling at home and comfortable within a 1-3-3-1 system that is now in its second year of implementation. Crusader's coach Brandon Wolfe explaining, "Over the season just playing the system.  Getting guys used to playing with each other, it's made a big, big difference. We've played better as the season goes on." Comparing this season to last year's Wolfe notes the big difference is, "Discipline to the system. Now we've stuck to the same system for the last couple of seasons. The guys struggled with it last season, this year they've really have taken on the system and are getting themselves in a lot better position." It is clear that both teams work together in strong units and any chance either team has of winning this game will come down to an ability to disrupt said systems.

For Wisconsin, they've found themselves in the championship match the last two years and each time they have fallen to the Detroit Tradesmen. While Detroit has moved up to Division I, for Winkler, that doesn't give them any sense of entitlement to the championship. Especially when considering Wisconsin had to beat the Crusaders both times to get to into the Midwest Championship. According to Winkler this doesn't give them confidence rather, "It's an emboldening attitude of we've been here before, we can do it again; but it's not something we're taking for granted. Cleveland is a very strong side and their getting better every time we play them." 

If Cleveland are to do one better than they have previously, a lot of it will come down to the play of AJ Andolino, their current captain. Winkler, the former captain noting, "Him moving into that captainship role really righted the ship and things are moving in the right direction with him in charge." In what will likely be a physical encounter between the two teams with attrition levels high, having a motivating presence provided by Andolino could pay massive dividends as the game wears on.

There will be a couple of players that the Crusaders are expecting to step up to the plate for them in this encounter. Notably their flyhalf, Nicholas Viviani, who after missing a couple of weeks in the season marked his return last weekend, with a 26-point performance. However, Wolfe will be expecting big things from a new recruit, Dom Mauer. He was formerly with the Seattle Saracens, but moved to Cleveland and the Crusaders have welcomed him with open arms. "Dom Mauer will be a key element to the game on Saturday, I guarantee you," exclaimed Wolfe. "He is a great player and he will be critical to our success."

Both teams enter Saturday's match with a solid understanding of what the other brings to the table. They know that it will be an evenly matched in the forwards, but outside of forward play each team has circled some areas in which they will be able to exploit. Both Winkler and Wolfe kept their cards close to their chest but know points will be at a premium and if they can control territory they can likely control the outcome.  

Women's Premier League Play-in Match: D.C Furies vs. Life West Gladiatrix:
After the wildly successful 10th year of the WPL concluded at the end of October; there will now be a play in match between the Life West Gladiatrix and the D.C Furies to see who will be the 10th member of the WPL next season. Both the Galdiatrix and the Furies will travel to Life University in Marietta, Georgia for the game. Life West has been dominating the club landscape for the past couple of years now, not losing a XVs game since 2015. They now have a chance to ascend from the Division I ranks into the WPL; but to do that they must first get by the D.C Furies, who by finishing 10th in the 2018 WPL season now must fight for their right to play in the 2019 edition. If the Gladiatrix were to win on Saturday they would create a setting where every team in the WPL would have won a national championship, as the Furies are currently the only squad that does not have one next to their name. It will be a tall ask for both teams as they both possess some explosive weapons. For the Furies, they will be looking to their All Star, Lauran Glover to lead the way. She leads the team in more ways than one and will be instrumental in their efforts to remain in the WPL. For the Gladiatrix, they will be hoping Elona Williams is back to her scintillating form from the Spring where she led the team with 14 tries. There will be no shortage of points scored this weekend and you'll be able to catch all the action through a Facebook live stream on the WPL Facebook Page.


Midwest Women's Division I Championship Minnesota Valkyries vs. Detroit Rugby: 
In the Midwest's top tier of women's rugby, the Minnesota Valkyries will take on Detroit Rugby. These two teams are intimately familiar with one another, as they have already come across each other's paths twice this season. On both occasions, it was the Valkyries riding off with the win. However, between game one and two the women from the motor city showed remarkable improvement cutting their deficit from 34 points to two.  Having narrowed the gap significantly between an away game to a home game, there is every chance now they are facing off in a neutral arena that they could complete the reversal and come out on top of the Valkyries. Abigail Smith has been the standout for the Valkyries all year. She will be at the front of the line trying to ensure Detroit doesn't get close to the Valkyries.  Over the year she has been a nightmare for oppositions to stop, scoring 12 tries.  Detroit's answer to her will be Kristine Smith who has been as instrumental to her team's efforts, scoring 7 tries on the year. It promises to be a highly physical and tightly contested match on Saturday. Both teams with a lot on the line and each inch will have to be fought for tooth and nail.

Midwest Women's Division II Championship: Milwaukee Scylla vs. Buffalo Rugby:
Throughout the Spring, the second division of women's play in the Midwest has been one of the toughest competitions to pick. There has been a tremendous amount of parity between the top teams in the league and now with the Championship here, it looks to supply an equally contested match. The Milwaukee Scylla, the 2017 Division II National Champions, come into the weekend as the presumptive favorites. This is on the back of their recent championship, but also from their, 91-0, demolition of the Chicago Sirens last weekend in the semifinals. Buffalo, has not won games in the same comprehensive manner as they Scylla; however, they have demonstrated an ability to win against tough competition in rough conditions, as shown by their win over the Pittsburgh Forge last weekend. The Scylla are no stranger to the big stage and will look to some of their veterans to see them over the line. From their 2017 run, they have players like Abigail Williams, Chelsea Wiles and Kyla Hensel returning. Their presence will undoubtedly create a cloud of confidence around the team, as the core group of players know what it takes. For Buffalo, while they do not necessarily have the same level of big game experience, they have been playing with each other for a couple of years now, and throughout the season they've had to consistently put players in different positions. This has built depth, flexibility and resiliency. All of these traits will hold them in good stead on Saturday.

Midwest Men's Division III Championship: Grand Rapids Gazelles vs. Bremer County Bucks:
One of the more remarkable stories coming into the weekend is the Bremer County Bucks. After a 1-6 campaign in Division II last year, the Bucks have run the table in their return to Division III this year; and despite sitting at 8-0 entering the playoffs they were seeded fourth heading in the western bracket last weekend. They advanced through to the Championship game after seeing off both the first and second seeded teams in the west. Their opposition on Saturday, the Grand Rapids Gazelles, found themselves in the opposite position. The Gazelles were seeded first in the eastern bracket and proved to the Midwest why they were ranked so highly. In their two matches last weekend, they outscored their opponents a combined 120-5. They were led by Zebb Dewes-Taylor who contributed 23 points in each victory. The outstanding outside, will be the focal point for the Gazelles plans in the Championship. He has been leading the charge all year and his team has followed. Saturday should be no different. The Bucks on the other hand, have seen a more consistent team effort, playing effectively within their structures and relying on size. The key for each team will be their ability to disrupt. For the Bucks, they will need to put pressure on the 10-12 channel to keep the ball out of Dewes-Taylor's hands. For the Gazelles, they will need to try and play the game at a lightning speed, in order to draw the Bucks into playing a more expansive fashion than they may have anticipated.

Midwest Men's Division IV Championship: Findlay Scars vs. Indianapolis Impalas D4:
At the beginning of the playoffs not many would have had the Indianapolis Impalas D4 and the Findlay Scars facing off for the Championship, after all neither of them one their respective pools. Both teams finished second, the Impalas D4 with one loss, and the Scars with two. However, after their performances last weekend, not many can be questioning their presence in the big game. Both teams put in tremendous performances to book their spots. The Scars put on an attacking masterclass, scoring 124 points in two games. The Impalas D4 won big in their first match, but then showed tremendous strength to hold on to a slender lead and beat the Chicago Blaze D4 in their western conference final. The Blaze were the only team to beat the Impalas D4 all year and as they head into the championship the Impalas D4 will be filled with confidence knowing they have rectified the only blemish on their record. Last weekend was a departure from the usual for both teams, Findlay who struggled to put points all year had an attacking renaissance; while the Impalas saw their attack, relatively, stall. This game will be determined by both teams' ability to recapture or maintain their scoring form. Both teams have shown an ability to light the scoreboard up, but it will come down to finding consistency within their rhythm and performance. They team who can play comfortably and consistently within their structures will walk away with the silverware.