D1A End of Summer News & Notes: Realignment, Playoff, and Coaching Changes

D1A Rugby: D1A End of Summer News & Notes: Realignment, Playoff, and Coaching Changes
Photo Credit: Karen Drinkwater

As the summer winds down and preseason practices begin for many D1A squads, it is worth taking a look at the biggest upcoming changes that will affect the 2017-2018 season. D1A Rugby continues to flourish, jumping from approximately 50 teams to 70 with the addition of a new conference. The new conference, along with playoff realignments and a plethora of new coaching moves, promises to make this D1A Rugby’s most exciting year yet.

The biggest shakeup to the D1A landscape for the upcoming season is the addition of the Liberty Conference. Consisting of 17 teams in the northeast, the Liberty Conference will include former Rugby East teams Iona and Delaware and teams from the D1-AA East Coast Rugby and Empire Conferences. The formation of this eighth D1A conference will help bolster the presence of premier college rugby in the northeast, with top D1-AA schools like UMASS, Fordham and SUNY Binghamton making the leap. Whoever leads the division in the fall will not be guaranteed a playoff spot, but Liberty teams will be eligible for an at-large bid. 

Rugby East has also seen a fair amount of changes heading into fall play, with Notre Dame College slotting in to help fill the gap left by Iona and Delaware’s departure.  The U.S. Naval Academy is also on the move, opting to play as an independent for the 2017-2018 season. Navy, along with D1A newcomer Grand Canyon University, will make up the two independents for the upcoming season. BYU, originally slotted as an independent, has recently  joined to the West (now known as the Rocky Mountain Conference). The Rocky Mountain conference is also welcoming Utah Valley University as a newcomer, who is moving up from D1-AA after a strong showing in the Varsity Cup in the spring.

Another former D1-AA powerhouse is expected to make the jump to D1A, as UC Davis prepares to compete in the California Conference. With Sacramento State leaving D1A after a year in the California Conference, UC Davis will step in to take their place. The 2015 and 2016 D1-AA champs, UC Davis will have its hands full facing some of the fiercest competition in the country, with the conference headed by defending D1A Champions Saint Mary’s.

Certain teams’ statuses are still up in the air as the beginning of the fall season approaches. American International College and Wheeling Jesuit University may enter the season without a D1A conference.  WJU, who just hired Jake Fautley as their new head coach, is still set to play a schedule against Rugby East teams, including Penn State and Kutztown.

To adjust to the influx of new talent in the D1A coalition, the 2018 D1A Rugby Playoffs will expand to include 16 teams. D1A playoffs will now feature four full rounds, doing away with the 12 team structure that gave the four top teams a first-round bye.  At-large teams that finish in the top eight may be eligible to host a first-round matchup in the April playoffs. 

The D1A landscape also has seen its fair share of coaching changes in recent months.  Life University promoted Colton Cariaga to head coach, while the University of Texas announced new head coach Zach Mizell and Arkansas State is still on the search for a new head coach.  Navy announced the hiring of former Dartmouth coach Gavin Hickie to replace Mike Flanagan who is stepping down after 27 years at the helm.

Much of the D1A realignment and changes are aimed at bringing stability and continuity to the league and the yearly play. For example, D1A Rugby has considered instituting a three year waiting period if a team were to drop out of the D1A competition. D1A regulations for the fall aim to establish a postseason deadline of October 15th, where teams must declare themselves eligible for postseason play in order to compete.

“We are excited with the continued growth and development of the D1A college competition,” said D1A Rugby Commissioner Kevin Battle. “With that said, It is important that we keep consistency and continuity.”