Norwich is writing a fantastic story. The women have claimed three national championships during the last year-and-a-half (2011 & 2012 college 7s, 2012 DII college), and now in their first DI season, the Vermont side is heading to the Final Four. But this isn’t a Cinderella story. Norwich belongs in the top tier of division one, and they reiterated that fact in Pittsburgh this weekend.
On Saturday, Norwich christened their DI playoff campaign with a 54-10 win over Indiana (read more), advancing to the quarterfinals against Army, which had defeated Princeton 34-17 for the Elite 8 berth. The last time the two teams played each other, the friendly match went Norwich’s way. But that was last fall, and this is national championship rugby.
Five minutes in, Norwich outside center Emily Colesworthy scored the game’s first try and established a lead that the Cadets never relinquished. Norwich got a boost when an Army player was yellow-carded, and two minutes later, No. 8 Vanessa Champagne was crossing the tryline. Flyhalf Emily Baugus converted the score for the 12-0 lead.
“We don’t have a set game plan,” Norwich coach Austin Hall said. “The way we attack depends on what the defense gives us. Army didn’t give us many choices, but we were fortunate to find those places and take advantage of them. … I ask them express themselves, be creative and take chances. Yesterday, we made some mistakes, but we’re really trying to create something that looks awesome because we’re being dynamic.”
Betsy McCracken hit the first of her two penalties to put Army on the board, and 10 minutes later, West Point made it 12-8 as Ashley Mohr picked off a pass and sent it to Scostia Peterson for the try. Joya Clark helped restore the point differential with a five-pointer in the 30th minute (17-8). The small wing was solid on either side of the ball, accounting for two tries and planting several try-saving tackles.
Five minutes into the second half, Army superstar Sharron Gianessi touched down the first of her two tries, and McCracken’s conversion chopped Norwich’s lead down to two points. But that 17-15 scoreline was the closest that Army came to a lead change. Clark’s second try occurred in the 49th minute, and Baugus’ conversion ended up being the winning points, 24-15. Center and freshman Ally Day dotted down in the 55th minute for the biggest lead of the day, 29-15.
“Those two tries were the difference,” Hall said of Clark’s and Day’s third-quarter scores. “We have that explosiveness, but we missed some scoring opportunities in the first half – two or three tries held up, a knock-on in the try zone as we were putting it down. We’re just not completely polished at this point.”
Army spent the last 25 minutes trying to find a way through or around the Cadet defense. Their focus became ball retention, and Army were rewarded with a penalty and Gianessi try in the 75th minute, 29-23.
“Army had a lot of size on us, a big forward pack, and their ball retention was excellent,” Hall said. “Such an impressive group of women at Army who hit us hard, and fortunately we were able to get back up. … We’re always ready to play defense; we don’t panic.”
Norwich has their bruisers, too. Meaghan Weppner, who was the Player of the Match on Saturday, handled the Army onslaught well. Hall described the hard-hitting, hard-running second row as “everything you want in a lock.” She was key to a confident, calm defense that held West Point to the 29-23 loss.
“This game was everything we wanted it to be,” Hall said. “This is how it should be played.”
A nice win, but Hall and the team know they’re not in top shape right now. They have three weeks to tick up their fitness and smooth out the kinks before the return trip to Palo Alto, where they won’t be defending their DII crown but shooting for the DI title.