Fun in Division 1

Duncan MacLean • Dec 15, 2017 at 12:06 AM

It isn’t often the Tri-Cities get to boast a national championship, less often it comes at the country’s highest level.

Three Grand Haven graduates and one Spring Lake graduate got the chance to win the big one this fall as the Davenport rugby team completed an undefeated run through the Division 1 women’s Fall Rugby National Championship.

Hannah Baker (Grand Haven), Alexis King (Grand Haven), Mackenzee Williams (Grand Haven) and Olivia Ortiz (Spring Lake) all played integral roles for the Panthers in their 10-0 campaign to a national title.

After taking down the likes of the University of Michigan, Clemson University and the University of Virginia in the regular season, Davenport took on the fall national championship tournament.

In the opening round, the Panthers easily dismissed Michigan State University, 155-7, and the University of Minnesota, 49-5, before running into their first challenge in the semifinals against the Air Force Academy.

A defensive battle eventually yielded a 15-5 victory for Davenport, giving them a spot in the title game against the University of Notre Dame.

In the finals on Dec. 3 in Greenville, South Carolina, it was back to basics for Davenport, who flattened the Fighting Irish, 89-24, to clinch a title in their first year playing in Division 1, helped by a score from Ortiz.

Previously, Davenport had competed in Division 2, but had found inordinate success against the lesser competition, winning six national championships since the program’s founding in 2012. The success quickly created a tradition of excellence that local athletes are excited to be a part of.

“It is a huge honor to be a part of,” sophomore fly-half Ortiz said. “There are girls on the team from the start of the program. To get to play with those original members and be able to play against these elite colleges as part of an elite program is awesome.”

Solid team offense, paired with some phenomenal athletes on the wings were the secret for the Panthers during the run, according to Ortiz.

“We have a great group of freshmen, including Baker and King, who contributed from the start,” she said. “We use our forwards to set up our backs and they go hand in hand. We have some great forwards and great backs, and an incredible outside center that scored six times in the national championship game.

“Beyond that, our coach has a system and we stick to it. We put the work in every day, five days a week. A lot of other teams only practice three times a week, so we are able to come together and play as a team because of that extra work.”

Prior to the 2017 fall season, the Panthers knew they would need to test themselves against top-tier competition to prepare for what they expected would be a deep playoff run. Davenport applied to join the highly competitive Big Ten Conference but was denied the chance to prove themselves.

“We applied to be in the Big Ten, but were denied,” Ortiz said. “So after that, the season kind of became about proving we belong in Division 1. It was surprising how little difference there was from D2 to D1. They were bigger schools but we were still winning by big margins.”

Their first big challenge came from an unexpected challenger in the very first game of the season win a 31-19 win over Notre Dame College (Ohio).

“Notre Dame College was a well-fought game,” Ortiz said. “We had played them previously and they have always been good competition.”

That game was the first for the local freshmen, who had seen limited experience on the field in high school, let alone in college. Baker in particular was thrown into the fire, earning a spot in the starting lineup for her first collegiate contest.

“Coming from just one year of playing in high school at Grand Haven and playing D1 right away was a big shift,” Baker said. “Grand Haven was third in the state so we saw some good competition, but it was a big step.

“I was really nervous coming in, I didn’t know what to expect. But, we were ready. Once I got into the game it was no big deal, and we crushed it like we knew we would.”

From then on, it was smooth sailing for the Panthers until they saw Air Force in the semifinals.

The journey to the title took the team all over the country, giving the girls ample time to bond with their teammates on trips throughout the Midwest and East Coast.

“It was a blast on the bus rides. It isn’t the most convenient way to travel, but I got to get a lot closer with the team on the trips,” Baker said. “It is a great way to get to know the girls.”

Ortiz and Baker’s experience playing at Grand Haven set them up perfectly to contribute at Davenport, from recruitment to their play on the field. Both players participated in a Grand Haven run to the state finals held at Davenport, where head coach Greg Taliczan noticed the young, aggressive talent.

“I was in Grand Haven’s starting class for rugby,” Ortiz said. “Rugby was something I was able to pick up pretty quickly. I missed playing an aggressive team sport. I played soccer a bit, and was carded all the time, so I thought, ‘Why not try rugby?’ I loved it in high school and talked to Davenport during our playoffs.”

Baker had a similar experience, impressing Taliczan enough to earn a starting spot in her first semester on campus.

“My biggest thing is I’m not afraid to be aggressive,” she said. “That is one thing coach saw when we went to the finals and made him recruit me.

“I didn’t expect to be a starter or anything when I was in high school. Playing at Grand Haven was just so much fun, my coaches there made it a great experience and made me love the sport. Now, I live with Makenzee and am having a blast here on this team.”

The expertise of Tri-Cities women’s rugby has officially reached the national stage, ushering in another wave of dominance for one of the fastest-rising programs in the country.

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