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Time to Attack: DI Quarterfinals

    

College Women

Time to Attack: DI Quarterfinals

Minnesota is happy to be back in the playoffs. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Women's Rugby)

The women’s DI college fall championship has been the toughest competition to figure out, but now that it’s set, let’s see what’s occurring this weekend.

Saturday hosts the DI fall quarterfinals. There are two regionals: The East convenes in Pittsburgh, the West in Colorado Springs. Saturday's victors will contest their respective semifinals on Sunday, and the two 2-0 teams will move onto Furman University for the fall championship the first weekend in December. The fall champion then books its spot in the 2016 national championship against the spring titleholder.

In the East Regional, the game to watch is Notre Dame vs. Princeton. The pair are coming out of strong conferences, have played competitive games all fall, and are eager to play regional ball again.

Notre Dame received an automatic berth to the Round of 8 after finishing third in the Big Ten. The top two teams – Penn State and Indiana – are heading to the DI Elite and therefore ineligible for the DI championship. But the Fighting Irish played the Redstorm well in the conference semifinals, losing only 36-22.

Loose forwards Grace McGurn and Katie Loughran are always prevalent around the pitch, and flyhalf Rachael Shey not only has a good boot and backs-launching energy, but also scores tries.

Princeton, coincidentally, was also the third-best team in its conference, the Ivy League, but had to play into the DI fall quarterfinals. Three of the Ivies moved to the varsity championship, and so organizers wanted to ensure that the conference’s No. 3 team was playoff-worthy. The Tigers presented a convincing case: an 86-10 play-in win over Northeast runner-up Boston College last weekend (read more).

UConn didn’t beat Boston College by quite that margin in the Northeast championship, but the Huskies did a bank a 49-3 win for the automatic berth. Watch for impact players like flanker Laura Heatherman, wing Devon Gold, and flyhalf Nicole Sills to cause problems for Kent State on Saturday.

The Golden Flashes, like UConn, competed in last year’s fall championship, but both were thwarted in the first round by the eventual finalists. Kent State squared off against Penn State, and UConn took on Norwich in the Round of 16. Now, the Mid-America champion can enter the post-season with more enthusiasm, instead of facing the 10-time reigning champion.

It’s an apt reward for the Ohio team’s 24-14 play-in victory against Michigan last weekend. Kent is now deeper into the playoffs than it’s ever been, but the Golden Flashes must not focus on that achievement alone when facing UConn, and start Saturday’s game with the intensity that marked the second half of last weekend’s game.

Out west, Air Force has to travel the least amount of distance of any post-season team, as it hosts the West Regional. The Mountain West rep advanced to playoffs last year and lost a heart-breaker to Northern Iowa, 7-0, in the opening round. The academy side has new coach Amy Rusert behind the clipboard and will once again take on the Midwest champion, this time Minnesota.

The Gophers return to the playoffs for the second time in the program’s 39 years of existence and replace long-time dominator Northern Iowa. Minnesota shared a nice rivalry with Iowa State this season, and it culminated in a 15-5 conference championship decision to the Gophers.

“They played a really aggressive game and had great ball retention,” Iowa State coach Mark Wibholm remembered the title match. “I’m not exaggerating that they had 75% possession of the ball. When Iowa State did have the ball, we came up hard and shut the back line down fast. They had great runs with the forwards off the side of rucks and made it past the gain line each time. No big, open-field runs, just hard-nosed rugby that wore us down.”

Iowa State missed out on the automatic berth, but is making a repeat appearance this year after a 36-24 play-in win against Northern Illinois. NIU competes in a five-team hybrid league, so the game was necessary. ISU will contest its quarterfinal against Texas, the Southwest champion. The conference is small, with only three teams competing, but the games are always heated, and good. The Longhorns know all about playoffs, although the team has experienced more success at 7s nationals.

Texas might have experience in these high-pressure games, but the team’s depth of roster has suffered this season, and against big Midwest squads, the Longhorns must be the aggressors in contact. Keep an eye on Casey Reynolds, who is a pace-setter, and flyers like Tessa Dennis in the try zone.

For the entire DI bracket, click here.