Minutes into the Women’s DII College Championship, and it was evident that Norwich was a league better than Winona State. The Cadets were the favorite entering the match and didn’t disappoint with their 82-12 win and first DII title.
“Winona State is totally physical, but they’re young, and they’re going to be back here,” Norwich coach Austin Hall said. “[Winona State coach] Roger [Riley] has done an amazing job with the youth he has to get them ready for this level. They didn’t have the experience to recognize what we were doing, though, and didn’t know how to defend it.”
Five players – wing Joya Clark, prop Baylee Annis, scrumhalf Emily Oor, fullback Rose Bernheim and inside center Vanessa Champagne – all scored a brace of tries. Flanker Hannah Bushey and Marlene Dwyer and wing Andrea Vogt added five-pointers, while flyhalf Emily Baugus converted seven of 13 tries and slotted a dropgoal for the cherry on top.
“That’s what we’ve done all year long. Anybody with the ball in hand is a threat to score,” Hall said. “It was the Hollywood story this weekend. On Friday [against Washington State in the semifinals], we were trailing the whole game and had to come from behind. All the emotion – we poured everything into that win. And then today, to have fun running around with your friends, throwing the rugby ball around – we got the best of both worlds this weekend.”
In all honesty, the point differential could have been larger, as a couple of tries were recalled after a finishing pass was ruled forward. Almost all of the scores evolved from an overload out wide. The Norwich players were able to do the work of two Winona players in the breakdown, and the Cadets were so quick to organize themselves on attack, that the defense rarely had the personnel to cover the multiple striking threats.
Norwich played such a complete game, and a prime example of that was Annis’ support. She was only on the field for 30 minutes (due to a yellow card), but she stands out as one of the prime supporters on breakaways. It’s a hallmark of Norwich’s play – everyone on the field can send a crisp past down the line and drive hard through the ruck to steal possession.
“She had a phenomenal game,” Hall said of the prop. “She played the best game of her life. You’ve got to love seeing that: a #1 running down the wing with a full head of steam. It was great.”
Georgia Porter and Hillary Zimmer scored tries for Winona, and Kayleigh Curran’s conversion topped off the Black Katts' 12 points. Today’s final was the farthest Winona has ever advanced, and the experience will only fuel a team that has steadily improved over the last four years.
“It’s been a fun ride to get here,” Hall said of Norwich’s first DII title. “This is my eighth year coaching Norwich. We’ve been close a number of times, but it feels good to get one.
“Every year we have a great group of women on the team, but this is a special squad,” Hall continued. “The senior class is amazing; senior captain Katie Hathaway is amazing. The chemicals are here, the bonding is here. The way they work together is special.”
Hathaway was recognized for her diligent leadership over the weekend and named championship MVP.
“I’m really happy [USA Rugby selectors] saw in Katie what I’ve been seeing these last four years,” Hall said. “She’s not the scorer, but she does all the little things. It’s the way she leads the team. [At one point] one of our girls started to get in a shoving match, and Katie came sprinting across the field, saying, ‘No, you’re not going to do that. We’re going to win this game and we’re going to do it right.’”
Seniors like Hathaway had to rush from the field and head back to Vermont, as graduation commences tomorrow. And then commissioning into the service follows. The players didn’t have too much time to indulge in the catered tailgate party that the dedicated alumni and parent association threw, but one can bet that the memories from this weekend will more than sate Norwich’s players for years to come.