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Despite nasty weather across the country, four teams emerged from the four regions to book a trip to Furman University on December 2-3 for the men’s DII college playoffs. Wisconsin-Whitewater returns to defend its national title, Norwich returns to for the second consecutive year, while VMI and North Dakota State will make their first ever appearance in the final four.
Norwich emerged from a tough bracket at Kutztown University. The Cadets came from behind to beat NC State 30-17 on Saturday and played a tough game with Hartford on Sunday.
Hartford put an inspired performance on Saturday coming back to beat Oswego 30-23 despite having a couple of players in the sin bin late in the game.
Sunday’s game was delayed because Kutztown University deemed that the field was unplayable on Sunday. USA Rugby had no real contingency plan, but the game was ultimately played on the campus football field. Norwich coach Bob Weggler was incredible angry by the change but ultimately acquiesced to play the game.
“I am really disappointed with USA Rugby. We give lots of money to them from college and to have this happen, there is no excuse,” Weggler told Rugby Today.
Playing on a narrow field, the game was very physical and tightly contested in the first half. The teams traded tries in the first half and it ended 12-12 at the break.
Norwich slowly took control in the second half and reeled off five consecutive tries. The Cadets pounded away on the fringes powering over the lines using their forwards. Captain and scrumhalf Tom St. Pierre dotted down twice, capping the game off with a long score.
“We prepare to play 80 plus minutes. We made less mistakes after they scored a couple of weak tries and we just kept at it. We are a complete team and on Saturday our tries came from the wings. On Sunday, it was a forwards game and they did the job,” Weggler added.
A late score from Hartford ended the match at 41-19.
Norwich will return to the final four after finishing third overall last year.
“Our goal in preseason camp was to win the national championship so we have been working every week, every game for that goal. We are very happy to be back and to be able to do it two years in a row it says a lot about our captain Tom St. Pierre and the overall team commitment.”
VMI won a pair of games comfortably to emerge out of this region. The Keydets defeated RPI 49-5 and Bloomsburg 43-5 to make its way to the final four.
The Keydets dominated the set piece early on and went out to an early 30-0 lead over the Tri State champs. After the game was in hand at the break, VMI made some subs in preparation for the game against Bloomsburg.
Bloomsburg may have suffered from a difficult game on Saturday. The Huskies were forced to go to overtime with UNC-Charlotte and ultimately kicked a penalty in overtime to win 32-29.
After catching some of the first half of Bloomsburg’s game on Saturday, VMI emphasized winning the point of attack on defense against Bloomsburg. With a big and physical pack, Bloomsburg was able to impose itself on Charlotte for some of that game.
“The key to the game would be tackling them behind the advantage line. They give the ball to their strong forwards and they charge forward with it, keep recycling ball and grind teams down with it….,” said VMI coach Wayne Howe. “I give credit to my team. I gave them the game plan and they could not have run it any better.”
The Huskies had a fierce wind at their backs in the first half, but thanks to the defensive prowess of VMI, ended up trailing 12-5 at the break. VMI capitalized on the wind in the second half, scoring 31 unanswered points to win 43-5.
“We rattled them. In the past VMI has always had a good attaching team but our defense has sometimes been suspect. To a man on Sunday, it was an impressive defensive display,” Howe added.
Howe credited the Bloomsburg team for a great fight, particularly for playing the entire season and getting this far without a coach. VMI, however, will move on to the final four for the first time in school history. In fact, the two wins over the weekend, were the first ever national playoff wins in school history.
“I am feeling pretty good where my team is but we are going to play a Norwich team that has been there before and we are going to have our work cut out for us. We have a good balance. We have a very fit forward pack and I am have some very handy backs so it is a challenge that I think VMI is going to be up for,” Howe said of the final four.
UW-Whitewater defeated Pitt State 64-15 on Saturday to set up a date with Grand Valley State on Sunday. Going up 47-0 by halftime, the Warhawks cruised to the final 8.
The Lakers needed all 80 minutes to get by UW-Milwaukee. In a back and forth game, GVSU were trailing 28-24 but scored on the final play to win the game.
Grand Valley State gave Whitewater its toughest game of the year on Sunday. The field conditions were not ideal for a team that has a potent back line like the Warhawks. The Lakers scored first midway through the first half to go up 5-0 but a try right before half gave the defending national champions a 7-5 lead at the break.
“Grand Valley State was a tough opponent and the conditions were not the best for our backs to get going,” said Whitewater captain Levi Van Lanen. “Our forwards were able to control and keep us in the game the whole first half.”
The Warhawks altered their game plan in the second half, starting to kick and pin down GVSU deep in its own territory. The strategy worked and Whitewater scored three tries to take a 24-5 lead. The Lakers scored a converted try at the end to make the score 24-12 but it was too little too late.
It will be another trip back to the final four for a team that has been a mainstay at the national finals. The team is favored to win again and Whitewater enjoys the challenge of being the team everyone is trying to knock off.
“Our goal at the beginning of the season was to defend our title. Whitewater rugby is one of the premier clubs in DII. We are the guys with the target on our backs and we like that challenge,” said Van Lanen.
North Dakota State won a pair of games in tepid weather conditions advance to the final four. NDSU dispatched last year’s runner up Furman, 31-15 in the opening game. The weather was so frigid that players were suffering from hypothermic conditions and the game was called in minute 70. At least one player was sent to the hospital.
“It was the worst conditions I have ever played in. It was raining/snowing and there was about 4 inches of standing water on the field. All this paired with below freezing temperatures lead to a lot of problems. Due to the conditions it was a very forward oriented game. Either team would play to forwards then try to kick for territory,” said North Dakota State captain Jason Anderson.
It did not help that the start of the game was delayed by overtime in the first match between Illinois State and Montana State. Regulation ended in a 10-10 tie but ISU ultimately scored four unanswered tries to take the game 30-10.
The field conditions improved on Sunday and the teams were very evenly matched for much of the game. There was a decent wind, however, and NDSU capitalized scoring three first half tries.
“We started the game with the wind at our back and we capitalized on it by kicking for territory and keeping the ball on their side for nearly the entire half,” Anderson added.
NDSU did not score in the second half but put in a stout defensive performance to keep Illinois State to five points.
“I believe the reason we won was solely on our tackling. We really had a relentless defense this entire game. Because of the mud there wasn’t any complexity to either teams offense we were simply able to make more solid tackles and find more gaps than they could,” said Anderson.
It will be the first final four appearance for North Dakota State in the history of the program. Two years ago the team won one game and now they are two wins away from a national title.
“I think the success our team is enjoying now is a testament to how dedicated our players have been to making themselves into better rugby players and the team into a better rugby team. I could not be more proud of this team and the leaders who help keep everyone moving towards a common goal,” NDSU coach Cory Schlack told Rugby Today.
The final four matchups will be:
Norwich vs VMI
UW-Whitewater vs North Dakota State