Davenport will take on the US Air Force Academy December 2 in the Women’s D1 College Fall Final, and it’s a final of two different paths.
Davenport has been essentially a varsity program for some years now. Technically listed as a Non-Varsity Sport at the school Davenport Women’s Rugby is a step above club sports, and is funded by the school. The program was enormously successful in Division 2, so much so that the school OK’d a move up to Division 1, where the Panthers won the 2017 Fall Final.
That Davenport is back in the final again is impressive, especially given that several of the players who were central to the previous championship runs - Allison Miedzielec, Hunter Moreland, Madison Sparks, Dannielle Ordway, and Hannah Tennant - were no longer with the team.
Head coach Greg Teliczan has rebuilt the team with almost half the roster being freshmen. Only two seniors, prop Veronica Oberbeek and flanker Lizzie Hoeskema, are on the roster. But Teliczan is a smart coach. He builds his team around power up front, and uses that to create opportunities out wide. That’s not to say the backs aren’t talented, but it has always been about building the team through the tight five, and it has worked.
Air Force is a different animal altogether. One of the dominant programs of the early 2000s, the USAFA has never quite gone away, but did go through some slightly less successful years. But back the Zoomies have come with a fall title in 2016, and under Amy Rusert they are now looking at being a regular contender.
The team’s biggest test came on Sunday in the semifinal against Minnesota. Haley Deeney got Air Force going with an early try, but Minnesota replied through Averie Mitchell-Brown and the game remained deadlocked until the 28th minute.
Then flanker Adrienne Yoder scored, and No. 8 Sierra DeHart added a penalty. Down 13-5, Minnesota put center Flynn DeWalts over and it was 13-10 at halftime.
But the first ten minutes of the second half won the game for Air Force. Prop Veronica Dodds and Yoder both scored, with DeHart converting both for a 27-10 lead. Two more Minnesota tries (Grace Bryson and Tara Viken) weren’t enough as Erika Fullbright scored for Air Force and Yoder added her third.
At halftime, said Rusert, “simple adjustments; the team settled down, did a better job limiting a disciplined Minnesota pack possession, and played most of the second half in Minnesota territory.”
They will need all of that against Davenport. Air Force’s young players, like Davenports, stepped up nicely over the weekend, but the player who made the biggest impact might have been Fullbright, normally a backup scrumhalf, she stepped in as a flanker and was superb on defense.
“Going into Davenport, I would say it's not a matter of better but more,” said Rusert. “One of our biggest challenges in the postseason - after daylight savings time - is securing lighted training facilities at times that don't conflict with varsity athletics, mandatory nightly briefings and call-to-quarters for our players. If we can get more deconflicted training times, we can get better.”