It’s an all-military quarterfinal in Pittsburgh tomorrow, as Norwich and Army look for a berth to the women’s DI college Final Four. West Point got started bright and early against Princeton this morning and banked a 32-17 win for the trip to the Elite 8. Norwich celebrated their first season in division one with a 54-10 victory over Indiana during a chilly Round of 16.
Army took an at-large bid to the DI championship, having not participated in a conference this season. Last year, the Cadets bowed to Navy in the first round and were eager to make a more lasting impression on this year’s post-season. Princeton came in as the Ivy League champion and were a good opponent for Army; however, the Tigers shot themselves in the foot with penalties, and that allowed West Point to gain some momentum.
In the first half, Princeton sent two players into the sin bin for not rolling away, and Army capitalized for two tries that helped build a 17-0 lead at half. Two of those five-pointers came from Allison Wilson, the other from Kelsey Wang. The Tigers put their first points on the board in the second half, as Army was penalized for a couple of high tackles. Flyhalf Lauren Rhode used her boot to get Princeton into scoring position, and the forwards did the rest from a five-meter maul, 17-5.
Whatever hope Princeton had of fostering a comeback was quickly squashed, as Army put Liz Olcese and Scostia Peterson across for tries, while Betsy McCracken handled the extras and a penalty. To Princeton’s credit, the New Jersey team pushed their opponents to the final minute, and were rewarded with tries from Morgan Arthur and Olivia Garard (Rhode slotted a conversion), 32-17.
The Cadets patiently awaited the outcome of the Norwich vs. Indiana match that followed, and through the first half, it wasn’t entirely clear who was going to emerge victorious. The majority of the first stanza sat at 12-3 in Norwich’s favor – thanks to tries from Joya Clark and Ally Day, and a conversion from Emily Baugus – until the 41st minute, when Christine Aye dotted down in injury time. Baugus, who nailed seven of eight conversions, helped Norwich to the 19-3 halftime lead.
Down but not defeated, Indiana pulled to within nine when an intercept was returned for a converted try, 19-10.
“Indiana has tough, fast girls,” Hall said. “They’re probably one of the fastest teams we’ve played – especially in the back three – and they were able to chase down our girls on breaks. They’re a really exciting team to watch and have a good program.”
At this point, Norwich had had enough drama and launched a 33-point scoring spree. Corinne McElroy, Clark, Rose Bernheim, Day and new wing Sophie Mundell all dotted down before the 65th minute, when the reserves started to roll in.
“That was our first half of rugby since November,” Norwich coach Austin Hall reflected on the first 40 minutes. “We needed to find our groove and get into game mode. … We have a very natural game – we took what the defense gave us and expressed ourselves. On defense, we just looked to where they were attacking and were able to stop them.”
Hall acknowledged Baugus, who at flyhalf expertly managed field position. She directed a very balanced squad, one that is designed to benefit the up-and-comers.
“We graduated four, maybe five, starting seniors,” Hall compared the current team to last year’s DII championship team. “We’re starting three freshmen now, and the first players off the bench are freshmen as well. I like to balance out the field with an equal number of players by class; it’s all part of the long-term plan.”
Norwich has boasted some major achievements in the last couple of years, from winning the DII championship and making the seamless transition to DI, to winning back-to-back 7s championships. During their short career in DI, Norwich has already impressed the field (including a friendly win over Army in the fall) but a win tomorrow against the former DI champion would solidify their status as a title contender.
“Beating Army in the fall meant a lot then; it means zero now,” Hall said. “We’re just looking for a great game, and are amped up for a clash of the titans. We have our sites locked on going as far as we can go; we haven’t made it anywhere yet.”