GVSU men’s rugby advances, women’s rugby falls in playoffs

GVL / Kevin Sielaff - Grand Valleys club rugby team defeats Oakland University Oct. 3 in Allendale.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL / Kevin Sielaff – Grand Valley’s club rugby team defeats Oakland University Oct. 3 in Allendale.

For the Grand Valley State men’s and women’s rugby clubs, making the USA Rugby playoffs was an accomplishment all on its own. The two clubs played playoff matches over the weekend, though only one prevailed.

The Laker men topped Northern Iowa 23-17, while the Laker women fell 78-5 to powerhouse Bloomsburg University.

The GVSU men squared off against the No. 11 Northern Iowa Panthers on Saturday. The match took place in Chicago during the first round of the USA Rugby Men’s Division II College National Tournament.

The No. 9 Lakers fell in an early 7-0 hole, but were able to claw their way back in, and hammer out 20 straight points, giving them a 20-7 lead. After the teams traded field goals, the Panthers scored once more to bring the score to 23-17 – the final.

According to GVSU head coach John Mullett, the Lakers started the game sloppily.

“(We weren’t) making good decisions, but we got into our game plan. We were able to score some points,” he said. “We have got to stop turning the ball over.”

“This was by far the hardest team we’ve faced all season,” said senior eightman Thomas Strandquist. “It truly was a team effort.”

Sophomore flanker Cam Maher, senior center Dylan Bergbower, senior scrumhalf Leo Pavletic and Strandquist all stood out in the team’s victory.

The Lakers’ next opponent will be the Minnesota Golden Gophers — the No. 1 team in Division II — in Des Moines, Iowa.

Mullett thinks his squad can surprise the top dogs.

“We’ll be as close to 100 percent next weekend as we have been all season.”

The players themselves are looking forward to the matchup.

“I’m very excited for it. We’ve been the underdog and we keep knocking teams out,” Strandquist said. “Going against the team that’s won the last two national championships, it’s like we have nothing to lose, and there’s nothing scarier than that.”

A few states to the east, the GVSU women’s rugby club squared off against Bloomsburg University in a round of 32 matchup as part of the 2015 USA Rugby Women’s Division II College Fall Championship. The game was played on the campus of Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania.

Several kicks set the Lakers up with their best scoring chance of the day. GVSU’s Lizzie Randall got her hands on the ball and touched it down for five points.

Randall’s try gave the Lakers hope early on.

“Lizzie scoring was definitely big for us,” said GVSU captain Maria Midena.

Playing Bloomsburg was no easy task for the Lakers. Bloomsburg entered the game undefeated and ranked No. 7 in the nation, but GVSU head coach Abe Cohen believed in his team and their ability to pull the upset.

“It’s the playoffs. Anything can happen,” Cohen said. “As long we believe and the players believe in themselves, good things will happen. Momentum can change in the blink of an eye. Hopefully it’s in our favor. We have to play even keel for 80 minutes and hope we have one more point than them.”

GVSU’s game plan was simple: Play smart. Play physical. Capitalize on mistakes.

“The club motto has been ‘Family Up’,” Cohen said. “I’m confident that our club will play Grand Valley rugby, together, for each other, and play for 80 minutes.”

Despite an 8-0 record and a high-powered attack, Bloomsburg head coach Kevin Castner wasn’t going to let his team overlook the 5-5 Lakers.

“The team is excited to play GVSU,” Castner said. “They have a strong program, which we respect. We will be looking to play to our strengths and to stop them on the attack.”

Bloomsburg couldn’t stop Randall early as the Lakers put points on the board, but after that, the No. 7 team in the nation proved their worth.

Before the game, Castner spoke of his team’s focus and their goal to continue to improve individually and as a team. They were able to do exactly that after Randall’s try.

“They ran harder than we did and they tackled harder than we did,” Cohen said.

The superior tackling helped Bloomsburg cruise to a comfortable 47-5 halftime lead.

“An injury to one of our best players in the second half helped group us together,” Midena said. “We wanted to play harder for her.”

The GVSU team never quit.

“They kept playing and playing,” Cohen said. “They didn’t give up.”

Bloomsburg proved too powerful though, holding the Lakers scoreless in the second half.

The Lakers missed five important tackles down the stretch, which ultimately led to five Bloomsburg tries, Cohen said. Those five tries blew the game open.

The 78-5 final wasn’t what GVSU wanted, but they were able to take some positives away from it.

“We wanted it for our seniors,” Midena said. “We played well. We tackled well. There was no difference in our play than the rest of our games this season.”

The journey to and from Bloomsburg is over 1,200 miles roundtrip. For Cohen, it was the experience that mattered most.

“The experience going there was great,” he said. “Just the team hanging out and bonding on the car ride is a great experience. We were happy with the opportunity to be an at-large bid and make the playoffs again.”