2019 Spring College Championships Preview

Not long until the 2019 Spring Champions are crowned.

The best programs in Men’s D1AA and Women’s D1 and D2 will head to Charlotte, North Carolina this weekend to compete in the Spring College Championships. Semifinals, for the Women’s D2 competition, kick the weekend off on Friday May 3; before the championship matches are played on Saturday May 4. All games will be streamed live through FloRugby. Tickets are available for purchase here

Full Schedule:

Women’s D2 Semifinal 1: Salisbury University vs. Eckerd College 12pm Friday May 3:

Salisbury returns to the semifinals this year and will be hoping to go at least one step further than they did last year, bowing out in the semis. To do this they will have to get by an Eckerd College team that continues to look more and more dangerous after each round.

Salisbury, reached this stage last year, before losing to a Claremont side that would eventually fall in the championship game. They will have learnt a lot from that experience and what will help them even more is the return of eight players from last year’s team. Not all the players have been kept in their positions, some have moved around in the pack and some have switched between the pack and the backs. However, regardless of where they are on the field, they will know what playing at this level takes.

Eckerd, are not as lucky, they missed out on making the last four in 2018, after falling in the Round of 16. However, this year they have already shown tremendous growth plowing through their opponents 84-10 and 53-12. While many may not have seen them as one of the bigger threats heading into the playoffs, they certainly have announced their presence as a contender.

One of the main reasons for the success Salisbury has encountered, in the last two seasons, has been the play of fullback Haley Sheldon. The number 15 has been a big part of their offensive production over the last couple of years. She’s been assisted by the likes of Kirby Given as well, the flanker turned center. Expect these two to make large contributions to the Salisbury’s offensive efforts, with both of them able to slot into second receiver with tremendous comfort.

Eckerd has been looking to Katherine Scheerer and  Stephanie Franz all season long for their offensive production. The outside center and fullback, respectively, have contributed a combined 45 tries to the team’s total this season. Scheerer leads with 28 and Franz has 17. Look for Salisbury’s efforts to be firmly focused on the duo.

It should be a close game with plenty of scoring. Salisbury may have the upper hand due to their experience, but with Eckerd’s explosive offense, they’ll never be out of the game.
 

Women’s D2 Semifinal 1: Tulane vs. Fresno State 2pm Friday May 3:

Last year’s Spring Champion Tulane, once again returns to the semifinals in the hops of repeating last year’s feat. In order to repeat as Spring Champions, they’ll first have to move by their semifinal opponent from last year, Fresno State.

In their previous encounter Tulane won 38-17. On that occasion, Tulane was assisted by a 17-point performance from number eight Madeline Brenner. However, they will be without Brenner’s services, this year.  This hasn’t stopped others from stepping up in her absence. Winger, Gwendolyn Leifer has filled her shoes, scoring a hattrick during their emphatic win over Kansas State in the quarterfinals.

Fresno State, were a young team last year. This year they return a significant amount of the players from their 2018 run. Many of these players are from the pack, expect this to be a point of contention throughout the weekend. Both teams have very strong forwards, but expect Fresno State to use their experience, especially, around the breakdown to try and help create separation between themselves and Tulane.

Tulane’s strength, while much of it is in the forwards, lies mainly with their backs. Both of their wings, Leifer and Sarah Foster are clinical in their finishing; while inside center, Rohen Turner has proven capable with ball in hand and with it off the boot. Fresno will need their pack to slow the ball down and disrupt any clean ball from getting to either of those players. If they can get space and quick ball it will be a tough outing for Fresno.

Tulane will be need their forwards to slow the ball down too, defensively, as Fresno possesses a lethal finisher of their own in Chetna Kumar-Naicker. Over the course of the season Kumar-Naicker has scored 20 tries. This is not to be outdone by Fresno State’s Outside center, Laura Ellison-Seeger, who has 18 tries on the year. It will be an intense battle between the speedsters on either team to see who will burn the others.

Both teams use their packs to lay a solid attacking platform for the supremely talented backs to launch their attack from. While the backs may create the highlights from this match, the game will undoubtedly be won up front by whichever pack can create an advantage over the other.

Men’s D1AA Spring Championship: Dartmouth vs. Chico State- 12pm Saturday May 4

Historically, two of the best teams in the Men’s D1AA spring competition will face off this weekend when Dartmouth takes on Chico State. Both teams are steeped in history and both have had a significant presence on the national stage, however, only one will be able to add a little more history to their respective program this weekend.

Dartmouth were last year’s Spring Champion, but ultimately fell in the national championship to the Fall Champion- Mary Washington. As retuning Spring champions, there could be a sense of nervousness or pressure that comes with the expectation of repeating. However, they proved in their opening rounds, there was no need for said concerns. In their quarterfinal and semifinal they took down their opponents by an average margin of 44 points. In an ominous sign, head coach James Willocks noted his side still had some strides to make up. “The outcomes were great, but, to be honest, the way we got there wasn’t as fantastic as we would have liked.” Willocks continued later to say they cannot rely on past performances to pull them through on Saturday, “For us it is just about trusting our processes. It’s not necessarily about what has happened, it’s about what’s next.”

What’s next is a Chico State side which has blistering pace in its backline and knows how to harness it. Chico State came into the opening rounds as one of the form teams in the country, scoring an average of 56 points a game. While they weren’t as explosive in their quarterfinal or semifinal appearances, they showed they were more than capable of winning the Spring Championship. Their one flaw which showed up during the play-in rounds was ill-discipline which ultimately proved to be costly on the scoreboard. If they are to knocking off the defending champions, they will need to make sure they stay on the referee’s good side.

Tightening the screws seems to be something both teams are keen to do in the lead up to this weekend. Willocks, noted making simple unforced errors against a team of Chico State’s caliber is a surefire way to lose a game. When asked what the keys to a victory would be this weekend, Willocks responded, “It’s going to be doing the little things really well. It’s finals footy and little mistakes can come back to hurt you in a big way.”

Chico State has one of the most potent back threes in the country, and with such an excellent group of open field runners, it breeds a culture of players that thrive off counter attacking and pouncing on loose ball. Two of the players leading this charge are their fullback Anthony Riley and flyhalf Anton Holm, both of them have  developed a knack for setting up tries. Part of what helps them create the try scoring opportunities is the play of their back row pairing of Jake Wiley and Thomas Gust, both players are menaces around the breakdown and can pilfer the ball when given the smallest amount of daylight.

Similarly, Dartmouth will be leaning on a group of players, rather than just one, or two individuals, to lead the team out of any tight spot they find themselves in. “We’re very fortunate we’ve got a lot of good players across the board. We don’t rely on too many heros, guys have their roles and do their roles. A highlight for us has been the senior leadership group. Captain, Struan Coleman, Fuller Winton and Jack Badenhausen have been wonderful all year”, Willocks explained.

Both teams can score extensively and both are well structured. It will be a tough game for both teams. If the game loses its structure, Chico State will likely gain the upper hand. If the game stays within its structures, the Dartmouth player may be too clinical for the men from California to keep up with.

 

Women’s D1 Spring Championship: BYU vs. Virginia Tech: 2pm Saturday, May 4

One of the most storied teams in Women’s collegiate rugby, BYU, finds themselves in fairly unfamiliar territory, as they compete for the first year in Women’s D1 play. In their first year, they’ve made it to the Spring Championship, where they’ll face a Virginia Tech side ready to prove everybody wrong.  

After coming down from D1 Elite, BYU doesn’t believe anything has changed. They are still playing and performing at the high standard they always have, the only change they see is a wider pool of opponents. Head coach Tom Waqa explaining, “We’re just playing the way we used to play and we’re just preparing the way we have been preparing. The adjustment is just in the name.” So far that has been the case for BYU, as they were more than convincing in their quarterfinal and semifinal appearances, winning 65-0 and 49-7.

Given their pedigree and their record, they are seen as favorites to walk away with the silverware on Saturday; however, their opponent, Virginia Tech, are confident in their ability to pull off the upset. “I think they’re [Virginia Tech] ready. We know they’ve just dropped down, but our girls have been through a grind this season, playing some really tough matches and have been challenged. We expect them to be bigger and faster, but I expect this to be a more competitive match than some people think,” said Garrett Thompson, Virginia Tech’s Head Coach.

They’ll have their work cut out for them covering the field, as BYU is a complete team from 1-15. The Cougars demonstrated this in their semifinal against UC Santa Barbara, where they had nine different players score tries. This is not just a coincidence, Waqa is a big proponent of his team’s ability to play as a unified squad and not just a couple of standouts. “The neat thing about this team, is we are balanced across the board and there is no star player. We don’t rely on individual brilliance, although at times it does show, but we would like to play the game the way it is supposed to be played: as a team.”

One of the areas Virginia Tech has been focusing on has been the breakdowns. They know to be able to compete with a tough physical side they will need to dominate contact and the areas surrounding contact. Thompson explaining, “We’ve cleaned up our rucking through practice this week. Mick Lee the other coach, has really focused on making sure our support is there. We can’t give up possession, clearly, when you’re playing a team at this level. You’ve got to maintain possession. Physical or mental mistakes won’t cut it this weekend.” They’ve also been focusing on closing out their games with greater effectiveness. While, for the most part, they did not come in any danger of losing games, there was a noticeable drop off between the first and second halves. Thompson believes they’ve sorted this and again knows they cannot afford to take any seconds off in a championship game.

This game will be physical. There is no way around it. Virginia Tech has an excellent back and set of centers, and BYU is a team notorious for their dominating presence on defense. While Thompson noted the physicality he is most concerned about is in and around the ruck, Waqa is more concerned with his defensive areas of contact.  “We’ll rely on our defense. We know we’ll have to defend really well, their threat will come from the centers and the forwards. We’ve faced teams that are built this way before, so we will be preparing on our defense.” It will be a close game and one that could swing either way. One of the telling signs will be the opening 20 minutes in the second half. If Virginia Tech can keep BYU off the scoreboard the Hokies could well be crowned Spring Champions, if not the Cougars will likely take home the trophy.