It was nearly all chalk in the DII Sweet 16 and Elite Eight Saturday and Sunday, respectively, with only two upsets in 12 elimination matches. RUGBYMag.com’s top three ranked teams, and the then sixth-ranked team, all advance to the National semifinals.
UW-Whitewater, who’s been ranked No. 1 nearly all of 2011, looked dominant in San Diego Saturday and Sunday, beating Cal State Fullerton 46-7 and Cal Maritime 36-19. That’s a starkly different performance than that of the 2009-2010 Warhawks, who lost in the Sweet 16 and their Sunday consolation match.
“I’m a fifth-year senior, and the program’s kind of come a long way since I started. We were always a pretty solid team in the past, but I don’t know if I really ever thought we would come this far,” said fly half Darin Heinrich.
“Last season it was really cool to get down to Nationals, but we didn’t really do too well down there, and this year we have pretty much the same team coming back, so winning these two games was pretty big.”
UW-Whitewater coach Pat O’Connor puts a lot of trust in his veteran bunch, allowing them to make decisions on the fly that perhaps other college, and specifically DII college, coaches might frown upon. His loose leash is part of what propelled Whitewater past Cal Maritime in their quarterfinal match, as two pop kicks resulted in scores.
“I work with the backs, and normally they have multiple options. You can crash into the guy and set the ruck, you can pass the ball, you can grubber, you can pop kick, so they got a number of things to pick from, and both these kicks, that was the right choice. (Cal Maritime) had their backs up flat, and we popped between their defensive line and fullback and recovered it and scored, so we’re happy there,” said O’Connor
“We talk through scenarios at practice about what should we do here, why should we do it here. ‘OK, if the defense if looking like this, what should we do?’ And so yeah. I trust them.”
Whitewater’s opponent in the western semifinal is fourth-ranked Sierra College (#6 until Monday) out of Northern California. The Wolverines put up some big scores in both of their San Diego matches as well, but their 32-17 quarterfinal win over Pepperdine was just a two-score game until late in the second half. Sierra did handle Cal Maritime with relative ease in the Pacific Coast Championship, but it’s still hard to gauge just how good the Wolverines are.
We will find out a lot more about them in the Final Four, and they’re thrilled to have the chance to prove themselves on the big stage. “We’re over the moon excited,” Sierra coach Michael Taylor said.
One thing Taylor’s not excited about is the possibility of missing one of his “very important flankers,” as he described, in the semifinals and finals. Justin Lugar was sent off with a red card near halftime of the Pepperdine match, and it’s possible he’ll miss the entire Final Four. By then, though, twin brother Brandon Lugar will surely be over the stomach that relegated him to limited action in San Diego. And as far as Sierra rugby is concerned, one Lugar is better than none.
On the other side of the bracket are the two most decorated programs left in the dance, 2007 and 2009 National Champ (#2) Middlebury and 2004 titlist (#3) Salisbury.
Middlebury, champs of the Northeast, pounded both of their comers in Kissimmee, Fla. over the weekend, beating St. Joe’s University 34-5 on Saturday and South Florida 38-14 on Sunday.
Salisbury struggled a little more, having to stave off a surging East Carolina for a 32-29 win in their quarterfinal. And on day one, the Sharks defeated a very salty Michigan State 27-19.
Though it would appear Middlebury is entering the Final Four with a bit more momentum that Salisbury, all it takes is a comparison of how each team did against St. Joe’s recently (the Sharks eviscerated the Hawks 57-12 just three weeks ago in the Mid-Atlantic title match) to conclude the eastern semifinal will be very competitive.