Winona gets its shot tomorrow. After defeating Kutztown 52-17 in the American Collegiate Rugby Association's DII semifinal, the Black Katts will make a third run at a title. The Pennsylvania side made a brave showing, debuting on the national stage and showcasing one of the hardest hitting packs in the tournament.
One of the biggest disparities in skill came in the form of kicking. Generally not known for their territorial game, the acquisition of Katie Dries at flyhalf has allowed Winona to develop their kick-and-chase. Kutztown not only lost their best kicker but also one of their best players, flyhalf Mary Cate Matta, during the ACRA quarterfinals. The deficit was evident.
However, Kutztown did not do a good job of simply fielding the booming kicks from Dries, and fullback Shannon Millar misjudged several receipts. Millar and new flyhalf Beth Mulleady were unsuccessful in their clearing kicks (scrumhalf Sharyn Beodeker eventually took over), which helped set up Winona scrumhalf Georgia Porter’s first try.
“Georgia always impresses me,” said Winona flanker and standout on the day, Holly Vassar. “She never gets enough credit. She’s really good at looking up, seeing the field, knowing exactly where the ball needs to go and getting it there. She’s able to step in and poach – she’s basically a forward and a back, and we’ve never had a scrumhalf like that before.”
From the kickoff, Winona stole possession from the subsequent maul, then worked the ball through Holly Edelburg, Heather Kohl and Caitlin Courtney. From a lineout in Kutztown’s end, Vassar eventually dove over after a series of pick-and-goes. Zimmer hit the conversion, 12-0.
A monster Dries kick set up Courtney’s try, which came after a couple of hefty stiff-arms, and fellow center Edelburg followed with a five-pointer after dummying through the middle. In addition to conversions, Zimmer slotted a penalty after a couple of not-releasing penalties from Kutztown, 29-0.
Kutztown was prone to those penalties, as a couple of quick-taps turned into unsupported breakaways. The ballcarrier, once dragged down, had no choice but to hold onto the ball, and the penalties followed.
Kutztown was most successful when they kept the ball in tight and worked their powerful pick-and-go series. The entire pack was agile and tough – attributes that also played out in their stronger scrum – and every outlet pass led to meters. Winona struggled to halt those drives, and got lucky a couple of times when a turnover did the work of a poach or positive tackle.
But just before the half, Kutztown was rewarded for a disciplined drive, as hooker Katie Davies dove over for the try, 29-5 into the break.
“They were a real big challenge, especially with the consistent picking and going from the forwards,” Vassar said. “Being on defense, having to back up, adjust and slide – we never played anyone like that before.”
Tackling started to degrade in the second half, and Vassar and Porter added their second tries of the game, while Zimmer hit her second penalty, 42-5.
Kutztown lock Faith Hughes – probably the biggest thorn in Winona’s side – capitalized on a miss pass and some penalties, barreling through a weakened, scattered defense for the team’s penultimate try, 42-10. But Winona wing Lyndsey Bucki answered with back-to-back scores, getting two great offloads from Zimmer and Vassar and outracing everyone to the finish line, 52-10.
Kutztown had the last say, though, sending flanker Jess Tolton over after back-to-back Winona penalties. Nicole Delong converted for the 52-17 final.
“In the end, we were more physically fit,” Vassar said. “And we were more settled. It was their first time here, so it makes sense that their nerves were up a bit.”
“We’re nervous and excited; it’s our third time,” Vassar looked ahead to the final. “We always do well on the first day, and then the next day, we’re so excited to be in the final that we don’t realized that we could lose. And then it happens and we beat up on ourselves. But this year, we’ve been talking about how to keep our mental focus for the second day.”
Winona will face Notre Dame College, which defeated Vassar 34-10 today, in the D2 final, which kicks off at 12 p.m. ET tomorrow.
Tries: Porter 2, Vassar 2, Bucki 2, Courtney, Edelburg
Cons: Zimmer 3
Pens: Zimmer 2
Tries: Davies, Hughes, Tolton