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The Big Comeback and the NCR Women's Final Four

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The Big Comeback and the NCR Women's Final Four

Fullback Aviana Matteo has been a key leader for NDC. Photo Llianna Holub, Notre Dame College Athletics.

National Collegiate Rugby is down to the semifinals for their Women's D1 and Small-College playoffs.

For the D1, the competition was largely made up of teams that used to play D2-level rugby under USA Rugby. But not all. In the end, we're left with Northern Iowa, which won two D2 championships in 2001-2002, Marquette, which is enjoying one of their all-time great seasons, a Life University team made up mostly of freshmen and sophomores, and a resurgent Notre Dame College.

NDC's story is one of a very quick turnaround. After a very quiet 2020-21 season, they saw their Head Coach, Luke Markovich, move on to work more closely with the Cleveland Rugby Academy. COVID, graduation, and other factors then left the team whittled down to the nubs. Men's Head Coach jason Fox was made Director of Rugby and he found Jack Nece, a young coach with a ton of enthusiasm, to take over the women's team.

"We had just seven players," said Fox. "So we looked at maybe playing some 7s, but that was it."

Still Nece and Fox went to work. They persuaded a couple of players who were thinking of moving on to remain at NDC. They recruited from on-campus, and they kept plugging away. Meanwhile, they found a home in the Allegheny Conference, and soon were up to 24 players and ready to play 15s. They lost their opener against Fairmont State, but then started to put it together, beating California of Pa. 29-0, IUP 40-5, Pitt 60-0, IUP again 15-12, and then Clarion 65-0 and Saint Vincent 53-0. You see the overall trend—they don't give up points and they punish mistakes.

"Jack has done an excellent job," said Fox. "We didn't know what to expect but we've been able to play some 15s and go well. And now from wondering if we would be able to even play 7s, the seniors have a 15s championship to play for. It's been really gratifying."

NDC finished their regular season with a 79-5 defeat of Kent State and a 65-17 win over Cincinnati. The playoffs went the same way, 39-7 over Roger Williams and 57-10 over Colgate. 

That senior leadership has been crucial for such a small roster. Back Michelle Majewski, fullback Aviana Matteo, prop Kennedy Miller flanker Christenvie Ngangu, and Kelly Wallenhorst, who won the team's Heart and Soul award in the playoffs, all played key roles in the playoff run. In addition, Alivia Leatherman, a sophomore who captained her HS rugby team just down the road in Parma, Ohio, was the playoffs MVP.

"The players have worked tirelessly since August to make the success of this season a reality," said Nece. "From practicing at dawn to extra lifting sessions and runs, the players were able to maintain their fitness through all 80 minutes of both matches, where it was obvious the opponents were struggling to keep up. For a program coming out of the COVID shutdown and barely having enough players to compete in a 15s season to have this much success is an attribute to both the players and the coaching staff. Everyone has bought in to the system and the program and with that level of comradery, we will be tough to face going forward."

That's for sure. Life, meanwhile, remain favored even if they are leaving their most experienced and accomplished players on the sideline. Life shut out Syracuse 56-0 and Clemson 55-0 in the playoff rounds.

"We are so proud of the squad for two shut outs and two debutantes this weekend," said Life Head Coach Rosalind Chou. "This group started to really gel and show intensity and chemistry on the field. Captains Emma Fredlund-Adams and Hanna Boekelman stood out, and showed immense leadership with this young group."

And they have depth. Of the five try-scorers against Syracuse (including three each from Sarah Barsoum and Lyric Greenhill-Casados), only Nina Mason and Barsoum scored on the next day as four other players touched down. Mason, however, continued what she did in high school at Doylestown in Pennsylvania, scoring in any way possible. She recorded two tries, four conversions, two penalty goals, and a drop goal for 25 points over the two matches. All of the players mentioned, save for Boekelman, are either freshmen or sophomores.

But even so, playing against Eagles and All Americans on the training field, these Life players are tough and athletic, and should be favored against Marquette.

Playoff results for NCR Women's D1:

Here are scores from key women's college games around the nation.

11/13 Northern Iowa 120-5 North Dakota NCR Rd 16
11/13 Cincinnati 27-71 Clemson NCR Rd 16
11/13 Notre Dame College 39-7 Roger Williams NCR Rd 16
11/13 Iowa State 26-29 Marquette NCR Rd 16
11/13 Bowling Green 26-62 UW-Eau Claire NCR Rd 16
11/13 Syracuse 0-57 Life University NCR Rd 16
11/13 Colgate 39-5 Kent NCR Rd 16
11/13 Grand Valley State 72-20 Purdue NCR Rd 16
11/14 Marquette 42-12 Grand Valley State NCR QF
11/14 Northern Iowa 66-7 UW Eau Claire NCR QF
11/14 Clemson 0-55 Life NCR QF
11/14 Notre Dame College 57-10 Colgate NCR QF
12/4 Northern Iowa vs Notre Dame College SF 1PM Knoxville, Tenn.
12/4 Marquette vs Life SF 3PM Knoxville, Tenn.
12/5 SF losing team vs SF losing team 3rd-4th 11:30AM Knoxville, Tenn.
12/5 SF winning team vs SF winning team Final 1:30PM Knoxville, Tenn.