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UW-Whitewater beat Illinois State 24-0 Sunday to win the first-ever WIIL Conference Championship. The Warhawks earned their way to the final with a 20-19 comeback defeat of rival UW-Milwaukee in one of Saturday’s semifinals. Illinois State beat UW-Stout 33-22 in the other semifinal.
After trailing UW-Milwaukee 12-3 at halftime and gaining a 13-12 lead in the second half, the Warhawks conceded a penalty try in the 70th minute by taking out a Panther chasing a kick. Converted, UW-Milwaukee led the top-ranked team in DII 19-13.
“Milwaukee really, really wanted to beat us,” said Whitewater coach Pat O’Connor. “They’ve lost the last four years to us, and they figured they were going to make their mark yesterday, and we were flat.”
The Warhawks snuck one in five minutes later, converted, to steal the win.
“Milwaukee played hard. They were aggressive in their attack, they were aggressive at the ruck, and so I can’t take anything away from them. We were able to walk away with a win.”
Coupled with a lopsided loss to DI-AA Northern Illinois earlier this spring, the close call against Milwaukee helped snap the Warhawks back into shape Sunday and shutout Illinois State.
“We did some things in the warm up and they came out and did everything we asked them to do – tackle them at the knees to the hips, drop them, get the ball, go forward,” said O’Connor.
“We wheeled them numerous times. We drove them back, and we were very forceful there. Our rucking was much improved, so it turned out well for us today.”
With the win, UW-Whitewater takes WIIL’s automatic bid to the DII Sweet 16 regional in Madison, Wisc. April 27. Illinois State and UW-Milwaukee are both prime candidates to receive one of the four at-large bids to Nationals, one of which is also in Madison. Who does O'Connor think deserves the bid the most?
"From the tournament aspect, Illinois State should get one because they worked their way to the final," he said.
"But I’ll be somewhat biased – I think the rugby in Wisconsin is of a higher quality than in most other conferences. There’s some great teams out there in each conference, but they’re not 3-4 deep, I don’t think."