With the crisp autumn air and falling foliage comes the postseason. The women’s brackets are set, with 34 teams split across three divisions vying for a national championship.
In Division I, six of the eight quarter-finalists are known, while play-in matches will determine the rest of the field. The West play-in features Midwest runner-up Iowa State and Big Ten third-seed Michigan State, with the winner drawing top-ranked Michigan. The East play-in pits South Atlantic champion Clemson against Allegheny runner-up Kent State, with the prize being a quarterfinal bout with No. 2 Notre Dame College.
Notre Dame College entered the fall ranked No. 1, and not until the final poll of the season were the Falcons usurped by Michigan. A pair of early, decisive wins over fellow playoff teams in Northern Iowa, 57-17, and Colgate, 49-10, made NDC the early-season favorite.
But the Wolverines came on strong with their impressive dismantling of the Big Ten, sweeping Notre Dame, Iowa, Purdue, Ohio State, and Indiana by the combined score of 280-34.
One debutant the entire field is keeping an eye on is Southern Nazarene, which has been barnstorming through its first-ever 15s season, amassing a 7-0 record and winning the Texas Conference title. Only one team has come close to the Crimson Storm this fall, Texas A&M. Southern Nazarene eked past the Aggies, 41-40, in their first meeting, and 26-12 in the conference playoffs.
The next-closest contest all season was a 56-10 drubbing of Texas Tech. Center Telesi Uhatafe scored a resounding seven tries in that match. Leading from up front for the Crimson Storm is junior No. 8 Ashleigh Brooks, one of only three upperclassmen on the newly-minted program.
Upstart SNU draws a blueblood for the first round in perennial contender Northern Iowa. Since their season-opening loss to Notre Dame College, the Panthers have amassed an impressive four-game winning streak.
Teams formerly of Small College and Division I melded together to create NCR’s first-ever Division II competition this fall. Eight remain in the hunt for the inaugural national title.
In the West, Great Waters runner-up Marquette earned an at-large bid, having been ranked atop the coaches poll most of the season before being upset by Wisconsin-Eau Claire, 29-0, in the conference championship match last week. Prior to their only loss, the Golden Eagles were on a dominant run, out-scoring opponents 366-24 through four games.
The Golden Eagles will face Great Lakes champion Bowling Green in Elkhart, Indiana. The Falcons scored big wins over Western Michigan, Youngstown State, Saginaw Valley State, Pitt and Ferris State this fall. Their lone blemishes are tough losses to Pitt and Notre Dame, the Irish ranked No. 8 in Division I.
The Blugolds, who have been knocking on the door of a Great Waters title for the last four years, are riding high into their quarterfinal against Ohio Valley champion Cincinnati. Eau Claire is led by Senior No. 8 Abbey Jacobs, who was selected to the USA U-23 team last summer.
Two former Small College national champions have put themselves in a position to potentially add to the trophy cabinet, in 2014’s champion, Roger Williams, and seven-time champ Wayne State (NE). Both enter the playoffs undefeated.
The Wildcats will host the University of Texas-San Antonio in the quarterfinals – the final match at their beloved home, Wayne Rugby Park, which is being razed at the end of the season. Of Wayne State’s eight wins this fall, six have been shutouts.
The Hawks draw South Atlantic champion Coastal Carolina in Culpepper, Virginia. Of Roger Williams’ five wins, three have been shutouts, while the Chanticleers have faced stiffer tests this fall, winning closer games against teams like Georgia Tech.
For the first time since 2015, there will not be a repeat national champion in Small College. The last team to knock off Wayne State, which won seven-consecutive titles before moving to Division II this fall, was Minnesota State-Moorhead, and the Dragons are the only club in the 16-team field with a 15s national title to their name.
Moorhead faces Great Waters runner-up University of Chicago in the first round. The Maroons, defending 7s national champs, routed rival Illinois-Chicago on Friday Night Rugby last month thanks to seven tries from electric outside center Grace Hogue, and they won’t be an easy out. Joining Moorhead and Chicago in Wayne are Pitt State and the College of St. Scholastica.
In the South Region in Culpepper, South Atlantic champion Lee gets Upstate New York runner-up St. Bonaventure in the first round. And Eastern Penn champ East Stroudsburg draws The Citadel, which enters as an at-large having cut its teeth against stiff non-conference competition this fall.
Top-ranked Cortland is the 800-pound gorilla in the East Region in Beverly, Massachusetts. The Dragons faced off against then-second-ranked St. Bonaventure in the Upstate New York Conference Championship, drubbing the Bonnies 48-17. The Dragons will face Salve Regina in the opening round, the second seed out of the Colonial Coast. The winner will meet the victor between Colonial Coast champion Endicott and Rugby Northeast champ Colby.
In the Midwest, second-ranked Northern Michigan will play Calvin from the Great Lakes, and 10th-ranked York goes up against Baldwin Wallace. The Yellow Jackets enter the postseason unranked, despite emerging as Ohio’s top seed.