It was another interesting weekend at the women’s college championships. Without fail, the teams came through and supplied all of the on-field drama for which one hopes at the national level. Off-field factors, however, tinged an otherwise great tournament.
First, the regional location format presented some inconsistencies. USA Rugby attempted to limit traveling expenditures by choosing four tournament sites around the country, and while some teams like Ohio State, Stanford and Princeton benefited, others suffered.
Mobile, Ala., was chosen for the southern location, and while the staff and facilities were top-notch, it’s not a convenient travel site. Northeast champion Brown wiped out its travel budget getting to Mobile, which is a difficult city to fly into cheaply. DII’s Temple and Shippensburg – which are based two hours from each other in Pennsylvania – won their respective Round of 16 matches against the South’s Lee University and Appalachian State. The quarterfinalists were frustrated that they had to play their Sunday match in Alabama.
While organizing brackets based on region versus seed generally worked out well for teams on the West Coast, the plans also posed some problems. DI’s Penn State, Army and Navy all convened in Princeton, N.J., for their playoffs. The former two are last year’s finalists, and Navy is Final Four caliber. Army and Navy played in a thriller of a match on Saturday, and the Midshipmen scored three consecutive tries to eliminate the reigning champion 25-20. West Point ended up forfeiting its consolation match on Sunday, which is another issue in and of itself.
Contrast the aforementioned teams’ experience and success at nationals with the teams that played in Columbus, Ohio. Women’s Cougar Rugby crushed Midwest teams Ohio State and Northern Iowa to advance to the semifinals, and had a much easier run to the Final Four.
In a larger sense, the seeding is brought into question. Army didn’t play their consolation match in part because that outcome wouldn’t have affected them directly (although it should); it affects the territory’s seeds for next year. RUGBYMag.com has said in previous years that current rankings and current season results should be used to help seed teams. This requires more judgment and opens the judgers to criticism, true, but no one in the game believes Army and Navy should have been playing in the opening round.
Every team deserves a look, even the top tier. While we can expect the Penn States and Stanfords to be good for a long time coming, there are no certainties. Virginia is an example in DI. Virginia defeated Brown in a double-overtime victory in last year’s national quarterfinals, but had to rebuild and is a very different team this year. Brown defeated Virginia 38-5 yesterday.
Division II would benefit even more from current rankings. While it’s difficult to compare teams across territorial lines at time, it’s not impossible. Consider American International College, which won the inaugural Rugby Northeast conference and received an automatic bid to nationals. AIC didn’t have to play through the Northeast Championship, and after their 52-12 loss to Vassar in the Round of 16, it’s evident that other teams were more qualified for that seed.
Coincidentally, those DII Northeast teams had a late-breaking opportunity to attend DII nationals. Days before the Round of 16 kicked off, Rutgers announced that it was forfeiting its bid. The players had been caught drinking at a men’s rugby game, and the university suspended the team until May – thereby ending its post-season before it began. Bowdoin, Rhode Island, Mary Washington, Delaware and Stony Brook were all contacted and declined for different reasons. Norwich – Rutgers’ first-round opponent – received a bye through the first round.
At the end of the day, a good collection of teams are advancing to the Final Four: Penn State, Women's Cougar Rugby, Stanford and Brown in DI; Washington State, Winona, Shippensburg and Norwich in DII. Some teams placate the difficult road to nationals with the mindset that they have to beat every team out there to be crowned champion, but it’s a fact that some teams had an easier road to Palo Alto. It’s only going to get more complicated as more conferences emerge and travel increases, but interested parties need to ensure that the right teams and the appropriate build-up lead up to the championships.