Women's rugby kicks it up a notch

UNI is an NCAA Division I powerhouse, known for outstanding men's and women's athletic teams. On December 7 and 8, the UNI women's rugby team captured the nation's attention once again by making its first appearance in the American Collegiate Rugby Association Final Four. The team capped off their best season ever by finishing third in Division I with a 32-15 win over Navy.

Women's rugby
The UNI women's rugby team scrums with Norwich in the first round of the American College Rugby Association Final Four.

Four Panthers were honored at the Final Four tournament. Team captain and senior Meghan Flanigan from Parkersburg received the Team Sportsmanship/Dedication Award. Three Panthers were named to the Division I All-Tournament Team: captain Crystal Nye, a senior from Urbandale; Mel Janss, a sophomore from Belle Plaine; and Eileen Lieb, a freshman from Milwaukee, Wis.

UNI's women's rugby team consists of athletes recruited from rugby programs in various states, including Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and California, along with athletes who were recruited after arriving on campus. They've all learned and grown together under Steve Murra, who has coached the team since its inception in 1994.

"From top to bottom, the first 15 and beyond, we're deep," said Murra. "In the past, we've had 10 really good kids on a team. This team can go 18-19 deep and not have a drop-off. They've been committed and been together for four years."

The Panthers finished their regular season undefeated and beat Air Force in the Elite 8, 51-0, to seal their DI Final Four appearance. The other three Final Four teams were Army, Navy and Norwich (a military academy in Vermont).

As a former Division II team, the Panthers won national championships in 2001 and 2002. They've been to the Sweet 16 every year since 2005 after making the move to Division I in 2004.

This year the team moved from being a club sport to being the UNI Women's Rugby Program. This change afforded the team access to UNI athletic training and the weight room. The team is responsible for covering all expenses and does so through fundraising efforts and donations.

The Panthers will take winter break off and will then start training and preparing for a chance to compete for the Division I Olympic Rugby championship. Olympic Rugby is different than the traditional 15 v. 15. It is 7 v. 7 on the same field with no rule differences. Coach Murra hopes to get a player into the Olympic pool for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

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UNI's Crystal Nye, Melissa Jans and Eileen Lieb (grey shirts) were named to the Final Four All Tournament Team.
The UNI women's rugby team pushes Becca Brown, purple cap, with the ball towards the goal against Navy.
Crystal Nye, UNI, picks up and advances the ball.
Women's rugby
Women's rugby
Women's rugby
Mariah Hinton, UNI, races down the sideline against Navy.
Megan Flanigan, UNI, received a sportsmanship award.
Family and friends of the 3rd place UNI women's rugby team take a moment to show their support for the team at the American Collegiate Rugby Association Division I Final Four.
Women's rugby
Women's rugby
Angie McCardle, UNI, kicks the ball away to Norwich.
The UNI women's rugby team finished 3rd in the national American College Rugby Final Four in Auburndale, Fla.