All eyes were on Notre Dame College today during the American Collegiate Rugby Association (ACRA) DII semifinals. The Falcons are a first-year varsity team, and only a handful of teams in the Midwest had seen the Ohioan school play. Their opponent, Vassar, is a more well known entity with playoff experience. The New York team showed great resolve in mounting a mid-game comeback, but a bevy of turnovers and bunching around the field hurt Vassar, and Notre Dame walked off with a 34-19 victory.
Vassar’s most well known player, scrumhalf Margaret Kwateng, stung the opposition early. Notre Dame failed to secure the opening kickoff, and Vassar took advantage of a penalty on the 10 meter, as Kwateng quick-tapped and snuck in for the score. It’s a specialty of Kwateng’s, and her ability to step out of tackles in tight would produce two more tries for the senior.
Vassar spent the first 10+ minutes in Notre Dame’s end, working their pick-and-go in lieu of their backline. Their offensive strategy didn’t change much, and the Vassar backs didn’t get much ball in hand.
“They did a lot of picks off the rucks,” No. 8 Hannah Long said. “We’re not really used to that; we’re used to opponents swinging it out to the backs. So we basically had to learn how to post up on our rucks – which we’re also not used to. We’ve had trouble with rucking.”
Notre Dame’s forwards were anything but weak – Long and New Zealand flanker Rebecca Swainson were so dynamic – but compared to Vassar, the Falcons’ back attack was more potent, notably in the center pairing of Stephanie Kroneberger and Hannah Gauthreaux, the fastest player on the pitch. Given an inch, Gauthreaux would take the corner, so Vassar centers Rachel Thompson and Cierra Thomas tried to eat up space on defense. That put the pressure of Kroneberger, and she didn’t panic.
The Falcons’ first score came after wing Brittany Kapsalis tore into an unguarded open field then offloaded to hooker Kayla Rudman in quick support. Gauthreaux converted for the 7-5 lead. Long dotted down two tries – the first after a 50-meter Gauthreaux break; the second came after scrumhalf Mariah Eckrich picked from a scrum and offloaded to the eightman, 17-5.
Notre Dame pushed it out to 24-5 when flyhalf Lea Walsh, after some confusion from the referee’s free kick call, tore through a frozen Vassar defense, which then surrendered a penalty. From the quick-tap, Long inserted into the line and got the ball to Kroneberger for the try, which Gauthreaux converted.
Vassar surged in the third quarter. A couple of short-range Kwateng tries, both converted by Mary McElduff, saw Notre Dame's lead cut to 24-19. Penalties were killing the Falcons, and play slowly started to degrade. Vassar surrendered so much possession, mostly in the ruck, and Notre Dame was so quick to counterattack, often shipping the ball to one player on the sideline for a long breakaway.
“They were going into contact with the ball wrong,” Long said. “So they would win the ruck but then there were a lot of knock-ons in the ruck; it was sloppy. So it was basically who was the more scrappy player in the end.”
With 13 minutes to go, Kapsalis finally returned her team into Vassar’s end and would have scored hadn’t Thomas tracked her down after 40 meters. A couple of phases later, Kroneberger took advantage of some broken defense and weaved into the try zone, 29-19.
Notre Dame’s final score was one of opportunity. Back inside Vassar’s 10 meter, the maroon turned their back as they retreated 10 meters for a penalty. Meanwhile, Walsh quick-tapped and simply won the foot race to the try line, 34-19.
Only one thing can make Notre Dame’s story more fantastic than it already is: a win over Winona in tomorrow’s DII final. That game kicks off at 12 p.m. ET.
Notre Dame 34
Tries: Long 2, Kroneberger 2, Walsh, Rudman
Cons: Gauthreaux 2
Tries: Kwateng 3
Cons: McElduff 2