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Hard-Nosed DII Playoff Bracket in Nebraska

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Hard-Nosed DII Playoff Bracket in Nebraska

Duluth looks for another trip to the final four.

It’s Round 2 of the Men’s DII College playoffs, and we’re down to the final 16 playing in three venues, and all eyes are on three-time defending champs Minnesota-Duluth.

The Fighting Penguins are ranked #2 by Goff Rugby Report - not #1 simply because they have not completely controlled every aspect of play during their Northern Lights season. It’s no insult - Duluth has been playing well, and Head Coach said the players have the same hunger and desire to work hard as they always have. 

First on the list of the upset hopefuls is Colorado School of Mines. The 2015 Rocky Mountain champions lost out to Western State this year, but it was a very competitive conference season in the mountains, and the #21-ranked Orediggers aren’t going to wilt.

“The quality of rugby in the Rocky Mountain was very good this year,” said Mines Head Coach Alex Eves. “Western State played great and won out; we’re happy for Western as their players and coach have been working very hard the past couple of years. Montana State was very tough too, it took everything Mines had to beat them in the regular season and in the conference playoffs.”

That competition prepared Mines for the playoff challenge ahead - a Duluth team that still has a formidable pack, an excellent kicking game, and the ability to score quickly.

Eves said his team’s win over Gateway champs Principia was a team effort. 

“We've lost a number of key starters from last year due to injury, graduation, academics, so as the season has gone on, we've had to constantly tinker with the lineup to find the right fit. A number of players have stepped up to fill those holes, players new to Mines and some that have been at Mines for a while,” said Eves. (In addition, the University of Nebraska stepped up. The host venue for the game against Principia, UNL also stepped up when Mines realized that after the nine-hour bus ride they had left both sets of their jerseys back home. The UNL women’s team quickly produced their jerseys for the game, and Mines went on to win.

Now, with regular jerseys in hand, Mines has a big job ahead of them:

“We've focused our two practices this week on preparing for UM-Duluth,” said Eves. “Duluth presents a massive challenge, they've clearly been the top DII rugby. The amount of consistency Duluth has shown is phenomenal. This Saturday we are just looking to play the best possible rugby we can play, we know it will take every ounce we have to hang in there with the top team in the country. No one choses to go to the Colorado School of Mines because it is easy and I know the Mines players will give it the very best this Saturday against Duluth.”

The winner of that game will take on the winner of Western State and North Dakota State. This will be an almighty clash of two very physical, hardened teams. Both operate in fairly isolated parts of the country. Both are used to traveling long, boring road trips to play games. NDSU knows cold and wind. Western State, 7,700 feet above sea level, know altitude.

“I think this is the first time we’ve played a playoff game where our team has had to travel the shortest distance,” said NDSU Head Coach Corey Schlack. Wayne State College in Nebraska is the host, and a long drive for all, but a little less long for NDSU.

“We really do feel good about it,” said Schlack, whose Bison beat Wisconsin-Milwaukee 36-12 last week to get here. “The last time we wanted to make a national title run UWM stopped us in our tracks. We had to play one of our better games and we did. We are really playing well together as a team - 15 guys pushing in the same direction, and we have a team that matches up against pretty much everybody.”

Ranked #13 by GRR and led by captains Taylor Neaton and Addison Czeck, NDSU only losses have been to Duluth (31-7 and 36-7). That was as close as anyone got to the Penguins. Holding UMD to 31 shows, said Schlack, that his team can play defense. 

And they will have to, as they take on a smart and fit Western State team, ranked #10. 

“I am pretty optimistic that we're going to play some very good rugby this weekend,” said Western State Head Coach Tony Luehrs. “My biggest concern leading up to this weekend has been the three-week break in between regional playoffs and the first round of nationals. I think our team did a very good job of taking a breather for a week after regionals, then coming back to training at high intensity these last two weeks. This has also given us a bit of a chance to recover a few injured players; we were missing arguably our two best defensive players in our games against Colorado College and Mines, and both are now healthy for the coming weekend.  We are absolutely physically prepared. If we can maintain the mentality we had on the field against Mines at regionals, I think we'll be in very good shape to make our mark this weekend in Wayne.”

It’s a very tough pool of teams, with #2 v #21 and #10 v #13. Duluth has to be favored, still, in this bracket. Last year, Duluth emerged from a snow-covered weekend to make the semis, and, ultimately, win the whole thing. With snow hitting Wayne, Neb. today, it might be the same chilly path this year.

 

The Kindness of strangers - Mines wins in Nebraska women's team's jerseys.

Mines Rugby