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Teams of the Fall: Illinois State and Northern Iowa

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Teams of the Fall: Illinois State and Northern Iowa

Illinois State in green and yellow against Northern Iowa in black and purple in the GMW final. Alex Goff photo.

The men's DII college season was marked by the emergence and growth of several varsity and school-supported programs, and that emergence might obscure the accomplishments of some of the more traditional club teams.

With five of the final eight in the DII playoffs being varsity or school-supported teams, and three of those teams making the final four, we think it's worth recognizing those that made it to the prominence as club teams. 

We're going to look closely at two of those teams for two different reasons—Illinois State and Northern Iowa.

Illinois State didn't make it out of the final eight, losing to eventual runners-up Adrian 55-17. It was a tough end to a bit of a battle of a season. ISU had started their season with a 34-17 loss to Northern Iowa, a loss that dumped them lower in the rankings. However, they didn't fold after that. Coached largely by their player leadership group, ISU beat Lowola, Northeastern, UIC, and, in the Great Midwest semis, Marquette, to make it back to the conference final.

Tested by depth and then by installing a new defensive approach in the middle of the season, ISU kept battling, and beat UNI 27-23 to win the conference.

"It just came down to getting ourselves a little bit of structure, a little bit of discipline, and we can win it," said prop Eric Jones, who was one of the player-coaches. (See what ISU had to say here>>).

And that Northern Iowa team that lost in that GMW final? They went one better than Illinois State, scoring late to beat Marian in the quarterfinals to make the national final four. Yes they fell short after that, losing the semis to eventual champions Thomas More and the 3rd-4th game to Norwich 35-29, but they battled unflinchingly throughout. A team that doesn't recruit athletes and gave up considerable size to Thomas More kept playing and then produced one of the more dramatic games in the consolation final.

At the GMW final co-captain Kaleb Boleyn talked about how rare it was to have actual locker rooms or stands where the fans could cheer—that's what it's like for many club teams. And yet they are able to perform at a high level, whether it's with volunteer coaches like UNI's Jesus Ramirez or with player-coaches like Tom Nevara, Tom Canova, and Eric Jones with Illinois State.

That's where the spirit of rugby flies high.

Illinois State University Results for fall 2021:
September 25: 34-17 Loss to Northern Iowa
October 2: 46-24 Win over Loyola Chicago
October 9: 28-0 Win over Northwestern
October 16: 53-0 Win over UIC
October 30: 15-10 Win over Marquette
November 6: 27-23 Win over Northern Iowa
November 19: 29-24 Win over UMass-Lowell (NCR Rd. of 16)
November 21:  55-17 Loss to Adrian (NCR QFs)

Northern Iowa Results for fall 2021:
September 25: 34-17 Win over Illinois State
October 2: 78-0 Win over Northwestern
October 9: 146-0 Win over UIC
October 23: 55-15 Win over Loyola
October 30: 33-17 Win over UW-Whitewater
November 6: 27-23 Loss to Illinois State
November 19: 61-5 Win over Virginia (NCR Rd. of 16)
November 21:  37-33 Win over Marian (NCR QFs)
December 10: 73-20 Loss to Thomas More (NCR SFs)
December 12: 36-29 Loss to Norwich (NCR 3rd-4th game)