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Four Conference Champions Face Off in NCR D1AA Semis

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Four Conference Champions Face Off in NCR D1AA Semis

Kentucky is looking for a title. But it's the semifinals first. Will Fagan photo.

Well we saw the NCR D1AA quarterfinals produce a few nailbiters, and it's likely we'll see more with the semifinals.

All four semifinalists won their conferences, but while two kind of sailed through their regular-season competition, two others had to overcome losses to mke it to NCR's Final Four. One team, Kentucky, was probably good enough to challenge for the NCR D1AA title in 2022 but wasn't part of NCR at the time. So they have a lot to prove. Another has been overlooked, somewhat, all season. Another lost last year's final by two points, while the fourth team is a two-time champion with a big ol' target on their back.

Here's a look.  

The Rankings Journey

(Remember GRR's D1AA rankings include teams in ACR and CRAA, not just NCR teams)

Louisville (MAC Champions)

This year's comeback kids are the Loouisville Cardinals. After losing to both Bowling Green and Western Michigan in the regular conference season, Louisville beat both teams in the conference playoffs, however, coming back to edge WMU by a single point in the final quarter of the game. And they followed all of that up with a comeback win over Tennessee in the NCR quarterfinals, turning a 21-5 deficit into a 28-24 victory.

In that game, the Cardinals put some starters on the bench in order to finish the game with an extra punch. Did it work? In one sense, no, as Louisville fell behind in the first half. And in one sense yes as those who started did indeed wear down the Vols and the finishers ... finished the game.

Head Coach Emil Walton is thinking he might do the game thing this week. 

"I have not yet decided so I’ll see how training goes this week," he said. "It seems that worked pretty well for us against UT regardless of the fact that we only switched on in the second half. Hopefully the boys have learned from that."

Louisville also remembers keenly their 24-22 loss to Virginia Tech in last year's NCR final. That rematch is now in the semis.

"We’re definitely looking forward to the challenge it’s a great opportunity to play the back-to-back national champions," said Walton. "Last year we were a very young team with 14 freshman on the starting 23. They definitely stepped up to the challenge, but if you really go back and look at the game, VT capitalized on some mental errors from our young players. We pretty much lost [because of] ourselves, which was a very tough pill to swallow. I think those players are a little bit more mature now, and they decision-making on the field and trusting the extra strategies that we put in place and flexibility in the framework of attack."

Virginia Tech (MARC Champions)

After getting bashed around in the Rugby East for two years and using that gauntlet to toughen them up for a championship run, Virginia Tech, still player-coached and player-run, is looking for the three-peat. They moved conferences this year, going to the MARC where the Hokies were really only tested once, October 13 vs Maryland. That game VT won 14-8, but they won every other conference game by at least 25. This is a little different from last year when Virginia Tech won no games in the Rugby East (made up otherwise of D1A and NCR D1 teams) only to beat Tennessee, St. Joseph's, and Louisville in the NCR playoffs.

All of those games were close—a total winning margin of eight points. And that reflects VT's "Born the Boats" mentality, which means there's no retreat, there's only a dogged march forward. That approach has seen them take two championships in a row.

 "We only returned five starters from the championship last year and only 10 players that traveled are still here with the team; we have 13 guys on our playoff roster that were not there before and they have showed out," said Hunter Danesi, prop, goalkicker, and co-coach. "We have a couple of freshman and a handful of underclass men in all and we have a couple of guys who were injured last year for the playoffs. So we do rely on our core players, but this is nothing new for us as we are always recycling and reloading the program each year as just a true club team with no coach. We aren’t able to recruit and offer kids scholarships, so we are building and training guys that have never played before college and making them championship caliber."

It's been working, and is a testament to the maturity and leadership of their older players. And having overcome significant obstacles on and off the field, they are ready for the next challenge. 

"We aren’t worried with what Louisville knows or doesn’t know," said Danesi. "We know they have a great coaching staff with a ton of experience so we have to be smart on the field because the Louisville players will be well trained. But, ultimately we are focused on our game and style of play as we have all year. Louisville will want revenge, but it’s nothing new to us as we have been playing with a target on our back for the past two years. Everyone wants to take our championships away each and every game."

Boston College (Liberty Conference Champions)

BC won the Liberty but certainly hasn't received the same level of respect in the GRR rankings. That's mostly due to strength of schedule, but the Eagles can change all of that against the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats. BC won convincingly over West Chester to make these semifinals and they have a very nice combination of smart power guys up front and hard-nosed skills guys out wide.

"Going into this postseason we have focused purely on our ability to execute on our own game plan," said Head Coach Rob Conway. "Our ability to have our attack and run downhill at teams, and our aggressive and organized defense has been been able to disrupt many teams' attacks. We know Kentucky have a lot of advantages when it comes to size of their players, but in my 10 years at BC that's almost never not been the case for us, especially when we play outside of the Northeast."

They have made a few adjustments over the season, notable being a shift in the interior backs. Declan Quirke had been the scrumhalf when Bobby Voth was with the Atlantic Coast All-Stars in France. Voth donned the #9 jersey after that and partnered nicely with Patrick Lively—the sophomore now a vice captain and actually skippering the team in one game when Matt Ricciardelli didn't play.

But just as the Liberty playoffs loomed Lively was shifted to inside center with Voth sliding to flyhalf and Quirke coming back in at scrumhalf. This created a sort of first-five-eight and second-five-eighth position mix for Voth and Lively. It is not a new position for Voth, who captained St. Ignatius from flyhalf when they won the Boys HS National Championships in the spring of 2022. 

The results since then have been pretty good, with a 26-7 victory over Binghamton that owed a lot to a superb team defensive effort, and a shocking 41-21 win over UMass that a) reversed an earlier loss to the Minutemen and b) almost doubled the UMass points against for the year. So, yeah, you'd have to think it worked.

With all of that seemingly settled and flanker Ricciardelli inspiring with his leadership and work rate, the Eagles are nicely poised to just play.

"As coaches, we have spent a lot of time on getting the players to execute under pressure and to make off-the-cuff decisions and to not hesitate," said Conway. "We are enjoying playing some of our best rugby at a crucial part of the season."

Kentucky (SCRC Champions)

Ranked #1 over the last five weeks by GRR, the Wildcats cantered through the quarterfinals with the largest margin of victory, beating a very good NC State team 32-12.

But there's a danger of over-confidence.

"There is no next week without this week," said Head Coach Sam Enari. "So our focus is only on Boston college. The Liberty Conference is a gauntlet, so we know BC is fit and battle-hardened."

Kentucky has ballcarriers and in Jack Phillips one of the most savvy flyhalves in the game who can control field position. But their bread and butter is their tight five and how hard those players work around the field. Possession, pinning opponents in their 22, and not getting impatient.

With No. 8 Everett Marret and scrumhalf Alex Cole peaking at the right time and prop Jared Monnier finishing his impressive career at Kentucky in style, the Wildcats can beat you in a number of ways.

"We are sharpening the tools we have and trying to pick the right ones for the job," said Enari. "Fitness and fundamentals will win the game." 

Both semifinals will be played at Penn State Berks on Saturday:

Virginia Tech vs Louisville KO 11AM
Boston College vs Kentucky KO 3PM