Women’s D1 Elite Semifinal Preview

A season's worth of work comes down to two games, but first team's must get over their first hurdle.

This Sunday, March 24, the four best women’s teams in the country will take to John S. Roberts Rugby Pitch at Furman University to compete in the D1 Elite Semifinals. In the first semifinal last year’s champions, the Lindenwood Lions, will take on, Central Washington University. The second semifinal will feature, last year’s runner-up, Life University coming up against Penn State. The winners from this weekend will advance to the D1 Elite National Championship on Sunday, April 7 at Stanford University’s Steuber Rugby Stadium.

Kickoff times for the two semifinals are 11am and 1pm ET, with streaming details to be announced later this week.  

Semifinal 1: Lindenwood University Lions vs. Central Washington University Wildcats:
The first semifinal of the day, will showcase a team at the beginning of their journey to the top of the women’s collegiate game, and one that which has recently reached it. Central Washington is, by no means, a new force in the college-sphere, having been one of the top programs in the county for several years now. However, they have only just begun to rekindle their D1 Elite aspirations- having spent the last season in the NIRA competition. They will have the unenviable task of having to restart those aspirations with against last year’s national champions, Lindenwood.

The Lions have been enjoying strong run of form, stemming from their national championship last year. However, despite their strong run of form, they aren’t taking anything lightly. “I think our first few years we were going in with an underdog mentality at this time of the year,” said Lindenwood’s Head Coach Billy Nicholas.  “That hasn't really left us. The team establishes a sense of urgency and focus at each training session and we are truly just taking things day by day.”

The intensity with which Lindenwood, and others in the competition play with haven’t been lost on Central Washington. Trevor Richards, Central Washington’s head coach, noting, “I’d say that D1 Elite is a tougher competition since every team is strong.  D1 Elite schools seem more invested in the competition.” In order to adjust to the strength of the competition they are facing, the Wildcats created a tough slate of games, including matches against some of the premier club teams in the country. While the results have not always gone their way, the team is battle-hardened and will be ready for stiff post season tests.

Further aiding each team’s preparation for their respective runs, this game will mark the third occasion this year the two teams have played each other. On the two prior occasions, it was Lindenwood who came away with the spoils; winning 60-0 and 39-5, respectively. Despite the emphatic nature of both wins, it is clear that the Wildcats are improving and will be a force to be reckoned with- a fact that hasn’t been lost on either of the coaches. Richards, while happy with the progress displayed, acknowledges time is running out to get it right; “It’s not necessarily about doing anything differently, but rather continuing to build upon the progress that has been made and executing how we know we can.  We’ve shown growth in some key areas but lacked consistency.  This is the final test.” Nichols added, from Lindenwood’s perspective, “They are a great team and it's been a pleasure to play great teams multiple times throughout the year, we have rotated through some various rosters so this time will be once again a bit different than the last two occasions.”

In their third and final encounter for the season, both teams know it will be a dogged affair, with physicality running through the match. For Central Washington they will be focused on their ability to think critically throughout the game and hope to outsmart their opposition. When asking about the catalysts for success Richards elaborated, “Disrupting their flow, pressuring them defensively and slowing their ball down.  We have to play the most intelligent rugby we’ve played all season and then be absolutely ruthless in all facets of the game.” Lindenwood’s keys to success will come from their ability to act cohesively as a unit and tap into their team dynamic, as Nicholls noted this has been the biggest factor in their success to date. “Much of the success can be attributed to a strong group of juniors and seniors finding their voice and leading in different ways. Combine that with our younger group coming in and meshing really quickly with the culture of the program has been really rewarding and productive.”

This game promises to be an exciting affair, with plenty of current members of the Eagles taking the pitch. The match will be about the squads as a whole, but don’t be surprised if it is broken open by one of the Eagles taking the pitch.

Semifinal 2: Life University Running Eagles vs. Penn State Nittany Lions:

The 2018 runners-up will take on the 2017 national champions, when Life University takes on Penn State. These two teams are two of the most storied programs in the collegiate game and both will be desperate to add some more silverware to the cabinet. However, before they start making room in the case, they’ll first have to get past a tough test on Sunday.

These two teams met last year in the semifinals, as well. On that occasion, it was Life who were able to sneak by Penn State, thanks to a penalty in the waning moments of the game. They met again earlier in the season, with the game coming down to the wire, again Life prevailed. However, despite the results both coaches know those games were very different to the game that will be played on Sunday.

“In the collegiate game I would say teams are quite different from year to year and we did have a very large graduating class in 2018,” said Penn State’s head coach, Kate Daley. “If we took anything away from that match it was simply just the experience of a high pressure game. [The loss to Life in the Fall] was the beginning of both Penn State’s and Life's fall season and I am sure both our teams are significantly different now.  The biggest thing we took away from that game is Life is fast but we also already knew that.”

Life’s coach, Rosalind Chou, adding “Every match is different and we cannot be complacent with a team as talented as Penn State. That match was very early on in the season for the both of us and I know Coach Daley has masterfully coached up her team since that time. We can take the lessons from our first meeting, and have to be prepared for a stronger, fitter, and more skilled Penn State squad.”

It is clear that the two sides have both a familiarity and, healthy, respect for one another. Much of the respect is garnered, not only from the games which they play against each other, but from the  teams they compete against outside of the schedule. Penn State has played a schedule packed with tough opponents from around the world. Having just completed a tour of Europe this Spring, and playing against some of the best club teams in the country, they are a primed for whatever Life throws at them. Life, while not taking an international route, have compiled an impressive season to date, including big wins over Women’s Premier League teams. When asked about the strong run of form, Chou was quick to note they can’t afford to rely on past success to carry them through, “We are constantly looking to improve so even if we have a ‘W’ on the scoreboard, we do not see ourselves as a finished product. The team has been incredibly focused on detail, growth, and becoming better each day.”

Sunday’s fixture promises to be a brilliantly contrasted match. Life, a team that is known for its speed of play and lethal finishing abilities; will have to overcome a Penn State notorious for imposing their will on the oppositions and dictating the tempo of the match. Both coaches know what they’ll need to do in order to win. For Penn State it is about teamwork, “For our team to be successful against life we will need to do and respond to everything as a single unit.” For Life it is similarly about playing within themselves and not being forced into an unnatural style of play, “To be successful in this match, we will have to control the controllables, take care of the ball, play at our pace, bring a lot of defensive pressure, and be able to execute skills with defenders in our face. We have to win the physical battle, as Penn State is notorious for their physicality.”

Similarly to the first semifinal, this match will host a bevy of talent with three members of the Women’s Eagles. Given the last two matches between these teams have been decided by a combined 15 points, this game will likely be decided in the last couple of moments of the match. It will be a physically and taxing affair for both sides.