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Four teams head to Cottage Grove, Wisc. this weekend with the hopes of reaching the DII Sweet 16. Winners of Saturday’s semifinals will do just that.
For the two Wisconsin schools, who play each other in one semifinal, it’ll be a return trip to the national playoffs. UW-Milwaukee reached the quarterfinals in 2006, and UW-Whitewater is the defending DII national champion.
For Northern Illinois and Ohio, who meet in the other semifinal, a trip to nationals would be their program’s first.
“It’s a really big deal for the club and the current guys on here right now to go out on top this weekend,” Ohio coach Willie Griffes said.
“It means a lot. Our alumni and the school are taking notice,” added Northern Illinois’ Ryan Dertinger.
“Our school is building a new facility and we have our own field, we have an option of a grass field and a turf field, so the only way to progress this sport, which is what we’ve been trying to do at this school or the last five, six years, is to win, and that’s what we’re doing and would like to continue to do.”
Ohio finished its regular season undefeated. However, the Bobcats tied in-state rival Xavier. The Musketeers played in the same Midwest regional as NIU, so the Huskies have some idea what level of play Ohio is capable of.
“They gave Xavier a run for their money, and we watched Xavier play and they looked decent – a few bad breaks – up in Michigan, so we’re not taking anything for granted,” Dertinger said.
Xavier was knocked out of the postseason in a 35-11 loss to Central Michigan. Northern Illinois pounded Central Michigan 50-15 in the quarterfinals, so the Huskies should be considered heavy favorites Saturday. But that won’t take the wind out of the Ohio sails.
“We’re fairly confident. We rely heavily on our defense and fitness and when we get to the second half, we’re confident we’re going to find a way to win together,” said Griffes. “I know we’ve had a lot of close games or games that we’ve come back in the second half, but everybody is just really confident that somebody’s going to step up and we’re going to find a way to win.”
The other semifinal is a rematch of the defacto Wisconsin state championship, won 39-7 by the Warhawks. Though the defending champs ended up winning by the equivalence of more than six tries, they were pushed by the Panthers in the first half. How can Whitewater put this one away earlier?
“One thing we’ve talked about with them is just have confidence in their skills from the beginning of the game,” said Whitewater coach Pat O’Connor of his players.
“I mean, they’re a good team, they do the things we ask them to do well, and they need to just recognize that from the opening kickoff instead of thinking about it for 20 minutes and then going, ‘Oh yeah, we do know how to play rugby.’”
Saturday’s winners play on Sunday for the Midwest championship. The titlist draws the West’s second seed, and the Midwest runner up draws the West champ in the round of 16.