November 30, 2023

National Champions Try to Repeat in Houston

November 30 - National champions will be crowned Saturday and Sunday across three divisions at SaberCats Stadium in Houston, Texas. And in all three, defending champs are attempting to repeat – Michigan in Division I, Wisconsin-Eau Claire in Division II and Endicott in Small College. 

Attempting to repeat as champions of the Lone Star Bowl is 10th-ranked Boise State, who have a new contender in Kent State, runners-up from the Allegheny Rugby Conference. The Broncos have lost just two matches this fall, to Montana State and Central Washington, while the Golden Flashes’ only falter was to second-ranked Notre Dame College, 24-7.

The Lone Star Bowl kicks off at 10 a.m. CT Sunday as a curtain raiser to the Small College national championship game at 12 p.m. and the Division II final at 2 p.m.   

Division I

Running it back for a second-straight national title game are defending champion and top-ranked Michigan and No. 2 Notre Dame College at 6 p.m. Saturday. The Wolverines won the 2022 final, 41-14, and neither they nor the Falcons have lost since. 

Noticeably different for NDC this season is the leadership, with first-year head coach Vanessa Marsh at the helm. The Falcons are a perfect 5-0 in her first campaign.

“I have not felt any pressure to get back to the championship game personally, though I think my returners have all had it on their mind during the season at some point,” said Marsh. “But, that being said, even with our returners, we are a very different team this year than we were last year, so the idea of coming in to avenge the loss doesn’t quite fit us this year.” 

Both teams have their stars. For Michigan, it’s All American fullback Ember Larson. For Notre Dame College, it’s All-American and Eagle prop Alivia Leatherman, who rejoined the squad for the postseason having debuted for the senior national team in October against Italy in South Africa.   

“Obviously, she brings a lot of skill, but her energy and her passion for the game is infectious and her leadership is always a boon to have,” said Marsh of Leatherman. “Having her fold back into the squad against Iowa State wasn’t without its bumps, but it felt like by the time we played Indiana. It was almost as if she had never left.”

In addition to Larson, Michigan is led by captains Maddie Bowers and Katie Gale, though the team has bought into what they call the “Michigan Difference,” head coach Jamie Frech’s brand of a complete team game. 

“What we bring to the table is the best rugby we can play as a team. That may vary year to year as we have new players that emerge every season,” said Frech. “That's the beauty of club rugby – constant change that allows you to adapt to new opportunities.” 

Division II

Continuing their title defense in Division II is Wisconsin-Eau Claire. The Blugolds are undefeated and have been ranked No. 1 all season, but the road back to Houston has been anything but easy, evidenced by a 12-10 quarterfinal win over Cincinnati, which the Blugolds secured with a try at the death. 

Eau Claire’s Izzy Currie is a menace on the wing, and Emily Martel leads from the front row. No. 8 Kaitlynn Moore has excelled in her first year starting at the back of the scrum. And La Crosse transfer Megan Ludy has slotted in nicely at flyhalf. 

Awaiting the Blugolds in the semifinals is a rematch of the Great Waters conference championship against Illinois. Eau Claire won 43-5 last month, but the Illini bounced back with consecutive playoff wins over Bowling Green and LSU. Alina Ampeh, usually No. 8, had to slot in the backline due to injuries and ran roughshod over the Tigers. 

In the other semifinal are a pair of teams looking to claim a national championship in their first year in the competition – second-ranked Coast Guard and No. 8 Vassar. The New England Wide champion Bears are led by senior captains Delaney Morey and Daniella Tipton and flyhalf and team president Katherine Jenkins. They fended off Rugby Northeast champion and fourth-ranked Roger Williams, 45-23, in the quarterfinals.  

Vassar, like Illinois, didn’t win its conference title. The Brewers finished second in the Tri-State to Columbia, but received an at-large bid to the postseason. They capitalized, beating Coastal Carolina by a conversion, 17-15, in the Round of 16 and Temple, 38-10, in the quarterfinals. 

Small College

Endicott is trying to claim a third national championship in 12 months this weekend, having won the 15s title in Houston last December and the 7s championship in Maryland in April. All American Tess Merrill has scored nine tries in Endicott’s three wins so far this postseason. 

Standing in the Gulls’ way in Saturday’s semifinals is second-ranked St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies won their first conference championship since 2014 this fall, beating fellow semifinalist Cortland, 32-22, in the Upstate New York final. All American No. 8 Makenna Ramsey is the Bonnies’ most dangerous ball carrier, scoring four tries in the quarterfinal win over Lee. Kaylee Middaugh dotted down a hat-trick against the Flames. 

When head coach Meredith Pyke took over the program two years ago, she inherited just 12 players. Now, the Bonnies are knocking on the door of a national championship. 

“It’s incredible, a real tribute to how hard the girls have worked,” Pyke said. “The amount of work they have put in — on the field, in the gym, watching film — has really paid off. They love what they are doing and are so motivated. They make my job so easy.”

Cortland gave Endicott its closest game in last year’s playoffs, falling 31-27 in the quarterfinals. The Upstate New York runners-up rebounded from their loss to Bonaventure in the conference finals to shut out Calvin 58-0 in the Round of 16 and raced past mighty Northern Michigan, 36-22, to reach the semifinals.

Ashley Crossway is Cortland’s head coach, and she’s assisted by is a trio of recent former players who were part of the program’s second-place finish in 2021, Claire Brandon and Grace Quick. They’re led on the field by a pair of former teammates from that squad, No. 8 Yasmin Valerio and flyhalf Becca Heaney. All American center Jill Underhill is also a key cog. 


To book a shot at revenge against either the Bonnies or Gulls, Cortland will have to outscore the high-flying Wisconsin-Platteville. No team has scored more playoff points than the Pioneers, who also lost their conference final, to Northern Michigan, before reeling off lopsided wins to reach the final four.




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