WAYNE STATE COLLEGE, LIFE NCR TEAM NAMED NCR CHAMPIONS
On Dec. 4-5, eight teams reported to Knoxville, Tenn., for the final stages of the National Collegiate Rugby (NCR) 15s national championships. Wayne State College retained the small college title, defeating Northern Michigan in the semifinals and SUNY Cortland 72-10 in Sunday’s final. Life University J.V. won NCR’s first-ever Division I trophy, besting Marquette University in Saturday’s semifinals and Univ. Northern Iowa 87-3 in Sunday’s championship.
RELATED: Saturday’s semifinal wrap-up
SMALL COLLEGE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
SUNY Cortland knew it was up against a dynasty, but the New Yorkers did not take the field with any sense of intimidation. Wayne State College started the game deep in Cortland’s end and then Claire Brandon nicked possession for a fast, nearly whole-field return. The pursuit made the tackle inside WSC’s 10 meter, but support was fast and the recycle moved to wing Caleigh Pfalzer for the try, 5-0.
“I think we knew why they scored,” WSC backs captain Lauren Nelson said of the team’s reaction to the opening try. “It was something we talked before coming into the game, so when that happened, we were like, ‘See, that’s what we were talking about, what we were preparing for. Fix it next time.’ … I think we were a little frustrated about that but we knew what we needed to do so we were just excited to fix it.”
A few minutes later, Wildcats pack captain Izzy Robinson scored the first of her three first-half tries, and scrumhalf Selma Taylor’s conversion put the Nebraska team up 7-5. The scoreboard was unchanged for the next 12 minutes or so, until Cortland committed a penalty in Robinson’s range. The prop knocked over the first of two penalty kicks, 10-5.
Wing Sarah Kelleher went on a long break down the sideline to put Cortland in good territory and then a high-tackle penalty allowed the team to reset and work the ball wide to Brandon, who had the wheels to the corner, 10-10.
“Over the years, we never really had a big challenge so that knocked some sense into us, the fact that they were a pretty good team,” Nelson said. “It made us realize that we really need to give this game our all.”
A couple minutes later, Robinson broke the tie after a high-tackle penalty set up an easy three-pointer (13-10). WSC started to play with more possession and ran some lovely set plays off of set pieces, but some finishing passes didn’t go to hand. In the final few minutes of the half, however, Robinson scored two tries and Taylor added a conversion for the 25-10 lead. To Nelson, those two tries showed the captain that the team was playing the game it was angling for.
“Mary Kahny is a sophomore but this is her first year of 15s because we had that Covid year,” Nelson said of standouts. “She did amazing today. Any time the ball was loose she was on it, and was always there for support. One of my rookies in the backline – Kailey [Pena] – I don’t think she missed a single tackle today. I didn’t know she was that good of a tackler but she came into these championship games and she was all about it.”
Wayne State College kept the pressure on in the second half, running in tries from inside center Phienix Svajgl, lock Taylor Ference, Taylor, Kahny and Nelson. There was also a penalty try (there were several yellow cards in the final 10 minutes of the game), and Taylor kicked three conversions for the 72-10 win.
Robinson was named championship MVP. For fellow captain Nelson, the final marked the graduating senior's final game with the Wildcats.
"Well, it’s really sad to be leaving; that’s why all the tears," Nelson said. "But I’m really thankful for all the time I had here and just finding this sport and the community in general. I feel like I ended up where I’m supposed to be."
Northern Michigan University finished 3rd among NCR small colleges, beating Lee University 53-19 on Sunday.
DI NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
Life defeated Marquette 103-0 in the semifinals, while UNI battled Notre Dame College to a 35-29 victory. Panthers captain Maggie Burns said that that comeback victory brought new confidence, and that’s how UNI played from the opening whistle. Freshman Emma Bacon quick-tapped from a penalty and tore into Life’s end, eventually setting up a shot at goal that just fell short.
That did put the ball in Life’s hands and the Running Eagles used the next few minutes to get in range for a Brooklyn Vaifanua try – the sophomore inside center’s first of three scores in the final. Freshman flyhalf Nina Mason, who was named championship MVP, kicked the first of eight conversions: 7-0.
It wasn’t long, however, before UNI was back in Life’s end attacking again, and when another penalty occurred in front of the posts, Bacon nailed the kick for three: 7-3 to Life.
“Our goal throughout the tournament was to not get scored on, but they did get a penalty,” Mason said. “We watched [UNI] in their game yesterday. It was a tough game against Notre Dame [College], but we knew if we played like we did on Saturday, we’d be fine. But they played really well and put a lot of heart into it.”
UNI ended up playing a lot of defense and players like lock Jessi Inman, hooker Isabelle Thomasee and fullback Ciara Stanerson-Edwards led in the way of tireless tackling and work rate. There was some confusion and/or handling errors when UNI transited to offense quickly, and Life made good use of those mistakes.
In the second 20 minutes of the first half, Life put down six tries. Ballcarriers like Nickky Nguyen, Reece Sakamoto-Wolfgramm and Tynesa Taulua charged hard into and off of contact. Flanker Abigail Bachman scored two tries from close range, and lock Sakamoto-Wolfgramm ended the half with a try.
Mason deployed a really fast, nifty back line that operated at top speed. The flyhalf took a couple of nice looping lines that sliced through the defense, and the freshman scored a couple of tries in the second half. Fullback Destiny Roberts and wing Sarah Barsoum were great finishers on the day as well.
“In the beginning of the season, I wasn’t as confident, but everyone kept telling me that I could tell them what to do and they wouldn’t get mad at me,” Mason said of commanding the backs as a freshman. “I gradually learned to deal with that, and as I got used to the structure, I got more assertive and got control of things.”
Life held a 45-3 lead at halftime and added five tries from Mason (2), Roberts (2) and Vaifanua. Mason also kicked two penalties and another three conversions in the 87-3 win.
“Dez Roberts and [outside center] Amaya Moala in the back line, they thrive in this stuff,” Mason called out teammates. “Amelia [Noa] is a truck and she just started playing so she’s just getting into it. She’s learning and doing really well and we’re really proud of her.”
In addition to naming an MVP, NCR has a tradition for Heart & Soul awards - players whose contributions go beyond the pitch and are inspirational in nature. NCR Women’s Commissioner Angela Smarto selected prop Kayla Dustin, who pulled double-duty this fall as UNI president and Illinois conference commissioner this fall, from the Panthers; and Life’s Noa, who played her first game of rugby during the NCR regionals and ignited the sidelines every time she touched the ball.
Notre Dame College finished third among NCR DI programs, defeating Marquette University 42-12 on Sunday.
All Tournament and Heart and Soul Awards
#1 Nicki Nguyen
#4 Reece Sakomoto-Woldgram
#10 Nina Mason - Championship MVP
#13 Amaya Moala
#15 Dez Roberts
Heart and Soul - #17 Amelia Noa
University of Northern Iowa
#2 Isabelle Thomasee
#5 Jessi Inman
#10 Tatyana Reed
#12 Maggie Burns
#15 Ciara Stanerson - Edwardss
Heart and Soul - #3 Kayla Dustin
Notre Dame College
#6 Abbey Rose
#8 Alivia Leatherman
#10 Aviana Matteo
Heart and Soul - #3 Kennedy Miller
#5 Ryley Rand
#9 Evelyn Mitchell
#10 Angela Andrews
Heart and Soul #6 Kayla McQuestion
#3 Izzy Robinson - Championship MVP
#9 Selma Taylor
#12 Lauren Nelson
#7 Ashton Hurley
#4 Taylor Ference
Heart and Soul #5 Portia Jones
#9 Anna Reinshagen
#12 Myia Tyler
#13 Claire Brandon
#3 Kailey Gleeson
Heart and Soul #7 Steph Rodriguez
Northern Michigan University
#22 Hanna McBride
#12 Bianca Rosales
#13 Rebecca Cheeseman
Heart and Soul #10 Savannah Struble
Honorable Mention #9 Rachel Placeway
#12 Jamee Lawyer
#10 Siena Macy
#15 Braeden List
Heart and Soul #4 Kayla Sharpe