If there's any team with a bull's eye on its back, it's Norwich. Three-time reigning 7s champion and DI finalist last spring, Norwich is the favorite heading into the American Collegiate Rugby Association (ACRA) DI championship. But this fall season has been anything but ordinary, even for the team that seems impossible to beat.
Firstly, Norwich showed that it isn’t impossible to beat. After playing the Vermont team to a 20-point loss – a point differential that Norwich rarely experiences during the regular season – American International College pushed the Cadets to a 19-15 quarterfinal during the ACRA playoffs.
“The AIC game was crucial for the mental growth of our team,” Norwich captain Rose Bernheim said. “We had to reevaluate our play and adjust our strategy during the game, which isn't necessarily ideal, but an important skill to learn. After the game, we realized we had some deficiencies in our mental toughness. AIC challenged us physically and tactically. They pushed us in ways we hadn't been pushed before, causing us to make errors and resulting in penalties against us. We needed that kind of the game. It wasn't perfect and everything didn't fall into place. We had to make a decision on that pitch to keep our heads up and grind it out together, or lose confidence in ourselves and regress to individual efforts. I attribute our win to the former; we chose to fight it out. It was an important game for us as rugby players and young adults. We needed to learn that we can't waste time trying to control things outside of our jurisdiction. We can only control our game and what we do as individuals and as a team.”
AIC had a very specific game plan in mind when taking on Norwich that second time, so the game was also beneficial in terms of playing an educated team. The Cadets are no longer anonymous, and are well documented, and good opponents will continue to take the field more prepared.
“I think our biggest difference in terms of players' attitudes this year has been our calmness under pressure,” Bernheim said. “That's an attitude unique to this year's team. As a product of the high-intensity game we like to play, sometimes in past years we've had a tendency to get ahead of ourselves and lose control over ourselves and our game. This year I think we've done an excellent job of maintaining a level head no matter the circumstances and continuing to play our game, regardless of the score, opponent or referee.”
Norwich's veterans - from scrumhalf Emily Oor, to Bernheim herself, and All Americans Baylee Annis, Joya Clark and Ally Day - will provide a foundation for the Cadets this weekend, but stay on the lookout for a few new, bright faces, which emerged during USA Rugby’s College 7s Championship. Bernheim confirmed that those players have been making an impact all season.
“In the forwards, I think Riley Blankenship and Valerie McGuire will be the ones you should watch,” Bernheim said. “Riley's currently in her second year of rugby and has immense potential. She's developed her field vision and is significantly more confident with and without the ball than last year. Offensively, she's powerful and has great hands. Defensively, she's one of the hardest hitters on the team. Val is also an excellent asset to the team. She's been playing rugby for a few years and is one of the smartest players on the team. She's dynamic offensively and a powerhouse on defense. She's stepped up in a big way this year as a starting lock and has proven essential to our forward pack.”
In the backs, look for flyhalf Hannah Bell and center Emily Colesworthy to add some pop to the Cadets' always-dangerous attack.
“Hannah has owned the number 10 jersey this year,” Bernheim continued. “She had big shoes to fill after Emily Baugus, our captain and flyhalf, graduated last year. I distinctly remember her telling me that she was going to make that position hers, and indeed, she fulfilled that promise. Hannah is immensely talented. She's a phenomenal teammate and an incredibly hard worker. She's the epitome of Norwich rugby: fit, fast and physical. Emily, like Riley and Val, has stepped up in a big way this year. She's also speedy, but her greatest skill is her ability to see space before it's even there. By the time she's got the ball, she's already beaten the defender because of her superb positioning.”
Some new challenges, some new faces, but we might also see a better Norwich. Like its Final Four compatriots, the Cadets are able to compete in a championship preceded by a proper league build-up. This is an opportunity for the teams to put their best foot forward when the stakes are at their highest.
“It's a long process and one that requires the team to balance intensity with rest in order to be successful,” Bernheim said of the singular 15s season. “Skill and fitness wise, I think we're at our peak. We're in a good place mentally and ready to take the pitch with the best teams in the country to play for a national championship.”
Norwich will face Northern Iowa in the semifinals, to take place at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 7, in Auburndale, Fla. All of the games will be live broadcast via RugbyMag.com's YouTube channel; stay tuned for exact weblink.