After a Fall spent rebuilding the team’s competitive edge and a busy winter of fitness, the Wisconsin Women used a dominating spring season to sweep their way to the 2015 Midwest Championship this past weekend. The team has also qualified for the USA Rugby national tournament for the first time since 2001.
Here’s a quick recap of how this awesome Championship came together …
LOOKING BACK: FALL 2014 & SPRING 2015 RECAP
Looking back just one year ago, eventual 2014 National Champion Pittsburgh edged Wisconsin, 20-15, in an heartbreaking loss in the Midwest Division 2 Championship title match. The score stood as the closest any team in the nation turned in against the Pittsburgh Angels in their undefeated run. Wisconsin would lose several starters to retirements and moves, facing a new Fall season of much-needed rebuilding.
Despite the roster losses, Wisconsin returned strong talent across the board and several players who were eager to step into more playing time at newly-vacated positions. The team would complete the Fall season with four wins against D2 league opponents, and two frustrating losses, to rest for winter sitting in second place behind their undefeated rivals, the Milwaukee Scylla.
A busy winter of indoor practices and dedicated fitness efforts would turn into strong building blocks for the young team this spring however. Eager to test themselves against new opponents, the Wisconsin Women traveled east to the DC Ruggerfest Tournament in March. Competing in the open division, the women in red surprised themselves with their day one success as they swept pool play with three victories against fellow Division 2 teams. Wisconsin defeated the Maryland Stingers, 49-0; the DC Furies D2 Women, 54-0; and the Buffalo Women, 45-0. Despite bringing a roster with a majority of forwards, Wisconsin advanced to the tournament final to face the DC Furies Old Girls. With a large roster of alumni, including several Women’s Premiere League and USA Eagles Alumni, the match proved to be a daunting effort for the WWRFC and they fell short, 29-19. Although second place was disappointing, the team played extremely well for early spring and kept up a rally throughout the match that truly tested the Old Girls’ large talent pool.
Returning home, Wisconsin opened up its spring season April 4 with a friendly developmental match with a small roster against the Division 1 Chicago Women, narrowly dropping a 24-22 loss on the road.
Turning to league play on April 11, Wisconsin had waited for a rematch with the Scylla since October, after losing just 23-22 at Milwaukee in September. The physical match saw Wisconsin barrage its rivals in the loose play and break through the defense to win 52-24. The victory also ended the Scylla’s undefeated league run in the regular season. The Scylla’s four tries allowed them to just squeak past Wisconsin in the overall league standings however, earning one bonus point in the super league points, to maintain first place overall.
Wisconsin’s Developmental players earned a lopsided 55-10 friendly victory against the Division 2 Chicago Sirens on May 18, giving the WWRFC a glimpse at the likely competitive level of what awaited them in May’s league playoff crossover match. The Sirens would finish second overall in their Midwestern league behind likely-playoff opponent, the Will County Morrigans.
At the end of the month, Wisconsin hosted the Minneapolis Menagerie on April 25 to wrap up the league regular season. After earning a strong 50-10 victory in Minnesota in October, Wisconsin faced a much-improved and scrappy Menagerie side that afternoon. After a slow start and fighting through less stringent referee calls, Wisconsin earned a 34-0 shutout to complete their Midwest regular season at 6-2 overall and in second place behind the Scylla.
2015 SPRING MIDWEST PLAYOFFS
As the second-place team in the West 2 league (states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa), Wisconsin traveled to play the first-place Will County Morrigans of the West 1 league (Illinois and Indiana) on Saturday, May 9 in Manhattan, Illinois. The Morrigans had cruised through their league undefeated and also provided a very difficult environment for the visiting team with a loud and harassing fan base. The weather also provided both teams with humid conditions on a narrow damp field that was less than ideal, covered in tall, seeding dandelions.
The match’s start was physical and quick, with both teams clashing and earning penalties. The Morrigans earned the first try and the sideline was quick to punish Wisconsin with mentally-taxing screaming and verbal assaults against specific players. The WWRFC buckled down (physically and mentally) though as the forwards pounded in two tries and put points on the board. As the match progressed, Wisconsin began to pick apart the Morrigan’s attack as the home team’s fitness suffered against the fitter visitors. The sideline volume grew noticeably quieter as Wisconsin eventally ran up an unanswered 41 points against the Morrigans’ initial 7 to take the playoff win. The victory also qualified Wisconsin for its fourth-straight appearance at the Division 2 Midwest Championships.
Wisconsin would again face the Milwaukee Scylla, who had earned their own lopsided 72-0 playoff win against the Chicago Sirens in a crossover match.
2015 MIDWEST CHAMPIONSHIPS
Just one week later, the women in red traveled south again to Lemont, Illinois on Saturday, May 16 to face even more humid weather and their long-time rivals. Thankfully, a great sideline was there to bolster Wisconsin as their brother team, the Wisconsin Rugby Club, family, alumni, and friends were all there cheering. The WRC would play for their own championship later that afternoon. [Spoiler alert – they won too!]
Never strangers to each others’ styles, Wisconsin and Milwaukee began slowly and physically in the humidity and soggy fields. The Scylla, unable to score tries, jumped on the scoreboard first with a penalty kick before Wisconsin flanker Kris Peterson scored her first try. The Scylla again notched a PK to retake the lead, 6-5, but after that, the sky opened up with much-needed rainstorm and Wisconsin opened up the field to roll to a 37-11 semifinal victory. The Scylla’s lone try was scored in the closing minutes as the heat and humidity returned to tax the teams.
In the other semifinal match, the undefeated Cincinnati Kelts shut out the Buffalo Women, 39-0, and would stand in the way of Wisconsin’s championship hopes.
Sunday morning, Wisconsin was refocused and renewed in coming out fast and strong against a Kelts team that was known for its swift and gifted backline. With thoughts of coming so close in 2014 clearly on the minds of several players, nerves were high. But it would prove to finally be Wisconsin’s day.
From the first kickoff, Wisconsin looked like a new team for the weekend jumping out to batter the Kelts across the field in all aspects of the match. Jumping out to a quick three-try lead before the Kelts finally scored, Wisconsin held a 31-10 lead at halftime. But the Kelts kept up their backline attack and tried to find cracks in the Wisconsin defense heading into the second half. Nerves remained high across the Wisconsin roster as time began to tick down in the red team’s favor and they built a 43-17 lead with the minutes dropping into single digits. Not quite believing the end of game whistle, the team that was supposed to be “rebuilding” was now jumping for joy as the 2015 Midwest Champions. Additionally, Wisconsin qualified to play in the USA Rugby East Regionals in Charlotte, North Carolina on May 30-31.
Sunday’s championship match also represented the first match in the national round of 16, so Wisconsin’s victory ensured a spot as one of the last eight teams in the nation (out of 85 total D2 women’s teams) still playing for a national title.