LAFEYETTE, Colo. – The top division of women’s collegiate rugby has been dominated by Penn State for some time, but the 10 other teams in the Women’s Division I bracket at the May 27-29 2016 USA Rugby College 7s National Championships are perfectly qualified to hoist the title in Cary, N.C. Each of the 167 matches, including the 33 Women’s DI games of rugby sevens, will be broadcast live from WakeMed Soccer Park on The Rugby Channel.
The Nittany Lions are coming off of a 15s Championship won earlier this month, but so is pool mate UC Davis, and additional D1 Elite and premier DI competitors will have plenty of confidence from strong spring seasons.
The first set of matches in Women’s DI pool play kicks off Friday evening, with the remaining two matches and first round of knockout play scheduled for Saturday. The top eight teams from pool play will reach the Cup round, which culminates with the Cup Final at the stadium field in Cary Sunday at 2 p.m. ET.
Pool A: Penn State, UC Davis, James Madison
Teams in Pool A will have one bye due to the pool containing three teams, and with Penn State, UC Davis, and 2013 runner-up James Madison, it will be an all-out war to determine who will advance to the Cup Quarterfinals.
Penn State had a bye in the D1 Elite Quarterfinals in April while Life and Lindenwood clashed in a physical encounter, but it caused a more hesitant approach to the Semifinal. The Running Eagles gave the Nittany Lions a run for their money, keeping the reigning DI National Champions in 15s and sevens to its lowest point total of the season and holding a lead late in the game. The class and experience of Kate Daley’s squad shone through, however, to advance to the title game.
Daley’s squad will have come out of the Semifinal and a close Final with BYU better than it went in, with D1 Elite Final Most Valuable Player and AIG Women’s Junior All-American Azniv Nalbandian – a freshman – just one of the younger Nittany Lions that stepped up under pressure.
The loss of Eagle Meya Bizer from the 2015 College 7s Championship team has not been felt in the team’s results in the short-form game of rugby, as a 5-0 campaign at the Big Ten 7s Championships tournament and championship crown from Subaru 7s served as adequate warm-up for the National Championships. Bitsy Cairns, Gabriela Cantorna, Tess Feury, and 2015 15s MVP Katie Mueller all return from last year’s team.
The name Erica Hipp will sound familiar to fans of women’s rugby. The Aggies’ center capped off an incredibly DI Spring Championship Final in Moraga, Calif., earlier this month with a 50-meter, game-winning try at full time. The Spring Championship title was not won in the one game, however, as UC Davis had battled a lengthy spring schedule just to get to that point.
Somewhat spurring on the Aggies was a rough 2015 College 7s tournament in Denver, where they were pooled with Penn State and an in-from Rutgers team. Davis was not able to advance from its pool and eventually lost the Bowl Final. The likes of Hipp, speedster wing Justine Joya, and Hipp’s midfield partner, Sydnee Watanabe – who “always breaks the gain line” – provide a variety of options on attack.
Long-time Eagles coach Roshna Wunderlich has James Madison playing wonderful sevens up to the standard of the 2013 team that challenged Champion Norwich in the Final. Coming off of a Shield Final defeat in 2015, the Dukes qualified for this year’s tournament by winning NOVA 7s, where they beat Virginia.
James Madison playmakers in 15s, scrum half Monifa Williams and full back Margaret Rich can put their teammates in space, while Darian Clark and Caoimhe O’Sullivan Roche can use their strength to get the Dukes forward on the field.
Pool B: Life, Stanford, Virginia, Texas A&M
Rosalind Chou’s made some huge strides with a young Life team since the program began in 2014. A 15s Spring Championship Quarterfinal appearance in 2015 followed by a 2016 D1 Elite Semifinal effort against the eventual Champions is all the more extraordinary when one considers the fact some of the Running Eagles’ most important players were found on campus rather than via a recruiting platform.
Players like N’Keiah Butler, Deshel Ferguson, and Nicole Strasko were already attending school in Marietta, Ga., before the women’s program began, and have each taken on influential roles in the team. The three were part of the Atlanta 7s Festival alongside the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series event in April, where one Life team won the elite bracket and a second claimed second place in the competitive competition.
The Running Eagles will be missing Ferguson, who has graduated, in North Carolina, where they will make their College 7s debut. Butler and Strasko bring with them some added experience as the two helped fill numbers at Women’s Eagles Sevens Head Coach Richie Walker’s training sessions during HSBC Atlanta 7s.
Stanford was not up to snuff in the D1 Elite playoffs this year, but the program is building towards the level of play that saw the program reach eight DI National Championship matches in 10 years. New Head Coach Josh Sutcliffe has been familiarizing himself with his playing group, and has an intelligent captain in Olivia Bernadel Huey leading the charge from the fly half position.
Qualifying via its home tournament, Stanford has been able to calmly take on the sevens workload after an early end to the 15s season. Rested and refreshed, the Cardinal may be able to pull off one or two victories before pool play ends.
Virginia – the Flamingos at College 7s – was minutes away from a Spring Championship in the 80-minute version of the game earlier this month. Not that the team had put all its eggs in one basket, but Virginia only competed in one sevens tournament in the spring to focus on its 15s season, finishing runner-up at NOVA 7s.
As elite coaches would say, rugby is rugby, and that kind of 15s-heavy scheduling suited the Flamingos in 2015. Undefeated in pool play, Virginia ended Rutgers’ streak in the Cup Quarterfinals before a two-point loss to runner-up Central Washington in the Semifinals.
Wing Joy Jefferson had a breakout performance against Davis in the Spring Championship title game a year after accounting for just seven points in six games at College 7s. Along with fellow back-liners Summer Harris-Jones and Zoe Schmitt, Jefferson and the Flamingos will not be overlooked by the D1 Elite powers in Pool B.
The Aggies out of College Station, Texas, are like Life in that they are new to College 7s, but that is why they traveled to Georgia in April. At the Atlanta 7s Festival, Texas A&M beat Ohio State in pool play of the elite bracket before losses to Harvard, Life’s top team, and Lindenwood saw the team end the weekend in fourth place. In Pool B, the Aggies may have the odds against them.
Pool C: Central Washington, Lindenwood, Chico State, North Carolina
The Wildcats from Ellensburg, Wash., are more comparable to Life than, say, Penn State, despite reaching multiple National Championship matches since their inception in 2014. However, Central Washington will consider itself battle hardened and ready for another run to the DI Cup Final this weekend based solely off of its competitive spring schedule.
Mel Denham’s team – an at-large invite to College 7s – crossed the border to Canada twice to play sevens. At the Vancouver 7s tournament, the Wildcats played in the senior Women’s Open Division and finished runners-up to British Columbia’s under-23s. At University of Victoria 7s, they earned their redemption, but did lose a couple of other matches to exit the event early.
Nate Serevi was not content to wait a full year to compete for a sevens championship after returning home from University of Denver last May. She joined up with Seattle Saracens’ women’s team as it worked toward a Club 7s berth and played a pivotal role in the Final’s starting seven for the runners-up. She did end up winning Elite City Sevens with the first AIG Women’s Collegiate All-American Sevens team, and has now taken on the role of captain as a sophomore.
One of the more intriguing matchups of pool play has to be that of Central Washington versus Lindenwood. The D1 Elite schools have the backing of their respective universities and have boatloads of talented athletes that come into the programs with years of rugby experience. Billy Nicholas took two teams to the Atlanta 7s Festival and took the competitive crown, but, more importantly, went up against a Life team considered by Penn State and others to be the fastest team in the country.
That tournament came at the end of a sevens season that also had the Lions travel to Nevada for the Las Vegas Invitational, where their only loss in six games came in the Cup Final. Five shutouts at Lindenwood Lions 7s earned the team qualification to College 7s, but the national tournament has not been kind to Lindenwood. In 2015, when the men’s team out of St. Charles, Mo., won the Men’s DI National Championship, the Lions followed up an undefeated pool play with two consecutive losses in the Cup Quarterfinals and Plate Semifinals.
The Lions will be a much different team this year, however, as only five of the players from that squad are travelling to North Carolina. Nine of the 12 are freshmen or sophomores, but athletes like freshmen McKenzie Hawkins, an AIG Women’s Junior All-American, and Nene Persinger, the team’s leading scorer, combined with the pacey Jennese Bacon and 2015 15s DII National Champion Hannah Gauthreaux, could turn the Lions’ fortunes around.
Not to be forgotten, Chico State reached the Quarterfinals of this year’s Spring Championships. Surrounded by teams in California that may rank higher on the collegiate 15s food chain, the Wildcats have handled themselves well in the short-form version of the game.
Chico State’s played in four sevens tournaments this spring, winning the qualifier at Oregon State and finishing second at San Luis Obispo’s Tri-Tip 7s tournament. Captain Darby McFall has all of the attributes a team needs in a leader and playmaker, with agility and a high-quality rugby IQ on both sides of the ball. Stephanie Keel-Moore is also a captain on the squad, while McFall’s sister, Shanan, captained the 15s team before sustaining a season-ending injury at Oregon State 7s.
The story of Pool C may well be the what-ifs for Chico State and North Carolina, as the Tar Heels are missing one of the bigger names of the tournament: Naya Tapper. Tapper came back to the program after earning her first HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series cap in Brazil and was a part of the team’s rise in the Spring Championships before a second loss to Virginia in as many weeks ended the chance at a title.
Tapper, now training for a Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games place in California, is one of the “older” players in Chapel Hill, but sophomore Kathryn Hobbs is a product of the southern California Fallbrook program, having trained with Fallbrook as a middle school student. Regardless of the results this weekend, fans may be seeing much more of Hobbs soon, beginning with a potential Club 7s appearance with Scion Academy.
Each match across the three-day 2016 USA Rugby College 7s National Championships will available to stream on The Rugby Channel at no charge to viewers. The full match schedule, color-coded by division, can be found on the College 7s website.