It was not a pretty game. Familiar foes, Norwich and Army, met in the American Collegiate Rugby Association DI final today, and every possession was a fight.
Neither side settled into a rhythm, but the Vermont Cadets were more dynamic when the passes connected, and they played a little faster, a little crisper than West Point for the 32-15 win.
But, boy, were there a lot of errors. Some were at the hands of the attackers – long spiral passes that landed between teammates, miscommunication that saw a would-be switch end in a pass to touch, forward-pass penalties, the works. And some of the choppy nature resulted from tenacious defenses that looked to steal every ball that hit the ground or at least punish the rucker who tried to secure the ball.
“They’re a military academy, we’re a military college; we’re tough girls,” Norwich flanker and MVP Sophie Mundell explained the game’s scrappy nature. “We go to the gym, we work out, and we don’t hesitate to go into the tackle with everything we’ve got.”
Army was more successful in the first quarter, spending the majority of that time in Norwich’s end. Norwich lock Val McGuire sent a booming penalty kick into Army’s end to relieve some pressure, and wing Shantel Crichlow scooped it up as it dribbled to West Point’s 22 meter. She found fullback Mariah Caid-Loos (who later came off with an injury), who wove through a maze of defenders, eventually popping out to face opposite Rose Bernheim, who is as sure as they come in tracking down open-field tackles.
Army did well to retain possession in the subsequent phases, sending bullet after bullet into the goal-line defense, but Norwich didn’t budge. Finally, the attack integrated the width, and flyhalf April Emerson spied a crack. She darted through for the opening points, 5-0.
“I knew the big thing was to gain momentum,” Emerson said. “I saw the opening and I went for it. Get the advantage, and we used that [momentum] for a while.”
Although Army did well to mix up its attack during the build-up to that score, one typically successful weapon was silenced: Kate Roose. The winger scored five tries against Navy by overwhelming the outside defense on pure pace, but Jackie Derocher and Joya Clark were too fast to be skirted around. While Crichlow and fellow back Allison Wilson were able to employ a stiff-arm for more yardage, none could get past Bernheim. Roose is also young. While she has great flat-out speed, she hasn’t developed a step and lacked confidence when the sideline closed off.
Norwich kept pushing back, garnering some momentum on their excellent lineouts and stealing some of Army’s. A nice piercing run from Sabrina Villaneuva saw the prop offload to the backs in fast support, eventually ending in Bernheim’s hands. The fleet-footed fullback took to the sideline and raced into the try zone. Flyhalf Hannah Bell converted for the 7-5 lead. Norwich added another quick try before the half to go up 12-5.
The second-half kickoff is always an interesting one, especially when extended to 10 minutes: Adrenaline has slipped from the body, coaches’ insight has enlightened players, and momentum is up for grabs. Norwich had no intention of letting Army close the gap, and from the restart, the ball swung wide to Derocher, who turned a flat line into a defense-splitting run, then offloaded to McGuire who was at full speed. No stopping her, 17-5.
“We’ve designated ourselves a second-half team,” Mundell said. “When we played down in North Carolina [for the USA Rugby 7s Championship], we came from behind in four of our six games. We knew we could come back, so it wasn’t a big deal. We keep our calm; we keep our heads and come back.”
Army got together in the try zone and realized that if they didn’t respond instantly, then the point differential would get out of hand.
From Norwich’s 22 meter, inside center Ally Day, who returned to the backline after sitting out yesterday’s semifinal, didn’t find touch on the clearing kick, and Army plucked the ball out of the air. The West Pointers received a penalty when Clark failed to release in the tackle, and Army’s Betsy McCracken sent a long-range kick downfield for the lineout. Army worked the width, pummeled the try line, then got the ball to Crichlow, who had space against a stretched defense. She cut back inside and dotted down the try for McCracken to convert, 17-12.
It wasn’t long before Army was back in striking distance, but they just couldn’t get a consistent go-forward. Finally, Mundell stepped into the passing lane as Army’s line got a little flat, but the intentional knock-on occurred right in front of the posts. Easy points for McCracken, 17-15.
With tensions peaking once again, the play started to degrade – the breakdowns were generally sloppy and slow as the defenses looked to poach, and while there were mini-breaks on offense, they didn’t connect.
McGuire had a pretty fantastic game, and her stiff-arms laid the groundwork for the next score. A monster run got Norwich to the try line, and Army withstood that pummeling attack. The Cadets sent the ball wide, and although Day’s pass sent Clark scrambling backward, the wing turned it around for a corner try, 22-15.
Clark was in the middle of the next score (at 76 minutes) as she recycled the ball in tight with outside center Emily Colesworthy along the sideline. As Army swarmed, Norwich formed a line that stretched the width of the field, and the players used it. Mundell and Baylee Annis were on the end, and the duo teamed up to pu the prop into the try zone, 27-15.
Cherry on top was the try in injury time, as more McGuire stiff-arms opened up a lane for the oncoming Riley Blankenship, who is just as unwieldy as her second row when she’s moving at full speed. The No. 8 dotted down and that was the game, 32-15.
“We couldn’t take them lightly,” Mundell said. “We knew they were going to come out with a hunger to beat us. We knew that we needed to win and that’s what we did.
“It feels good to come back and get a win here,” Mundell reflected on last season’s DI final loss to Penn State. “It was nice to get a win against Penn State in North Carolina. … I’ve never won anything this big, so to come here and have this opportunity with this great group of girls is awesome.”
“I couldn’t be prouder of the girls,” Emerson said. “We’ve dealt with a lot this season – a lot of injuries. We knew this was going to be a tough game and we gutted it out. Norwich is a great team and I think we played one of our best games of the season.”
History’s been written today: Norwich is the first DI ACRA champion and now have 7s to look forward to in the spring.