It doesn’t get any better than Norwich vs. Stanford. In the best semifinal of the day – between DI and DII women’s college – the Cadets defeated the host 33-31 on a game-ending penalty. It was a pleasant end to day one of the final four, which had produced three blowout wins earlier in the day.
“That was definitely in the top two,” Norwich flyhalf Baugus ranked today’s semifinal. “I can’t decide between this one or last year’s against Washington State [being number one]. It’s the semifinals, seems to do it to us. But with this team, these teammates, this game is definitely number one.”
There were five lead changes, two ties and loads of momentum shifts. Norwich had the more dynamic backline, with game-changers like Ally Day and tough speedsters like Joya Clark and Rose Bernheim. Even if Norwich was caught flat, they were much more threatening with ball in hand, and got nice support from back rows like Vanessa Champagne – who had a fantastic game – and Hannah Bell.
“We have a lot of speed, and today, we kicked a lot,” Baugus commented on how Norwich adjusted its offense. “Coach likes to point out that if you pitted Stanford girls against Norwich girls in a foot race, Stanford would come in first, definitely. But we’d come in #2, #3, #4 – it’s that depth in speed that we have. We’re not a huge kicking team. We just have the ability to do it.”
Stanford had speed out wide, too, and the team worked good, quick ball especially well in the first half. However, the ball rarely made it out to the wings, and the Cardinal struggled to realize overload situations to their advantage.
Stanford sent some really effective, mobile tight five players up against Norwich, and the Cadets struggled to bring players like Maxine Fonua and Shola Oyedele to the ground quickly. Both scored tries as Norwich attempted to go high, and the duo were a great go-forward entity for the home team. Stanford also had the edge in the set pieces – especially short lineouts, which were picked off more times than not.
It’s unfair to say that Norwich deserved the win any more than Stanford deserved the loss; however, the Cadets put forth an admirable comeback when trailing 28-17 in the second half. After dive-over tries from Day and scrumhalf Emily Oor (a Canadian whom Baugus calls “the best scrumhalf on the continent”), Norwich pulled to within one (28-27) with about 18 minutes remaining.
With eight minutes to go, Baugus attempted an off-center penalty, which fell short and into Stanford’s hands. But Norwich pressured the receipt quickly, forcing Stanford to ground the ball in their try zone, forcing a five-meter scrum. Baugus slid into position and calmly slotted a dropgoal, 30-28, to everyone's surprise.
“I probably have 16/17 dropgoals in my career,” Baugus said. “It started with a challenge from an alumni during my sophomore year, when I took over flyhalf. She said she’d been trying to do it for years, and I thought: I can do that! And now it’s turned into part of our strategy.”
But then it looked as if Stanford was going to have the last word. With two minutes remaining, the Cardinal received a penalty just off center, about 22 meters out. Gleason paced anxiously as she considered the risk, and after a deep breath, lined up the shot and just snuck it through the right goal post, 31-30.
It was the happiest Stanford would be for the rest of the season, sprinting and cheering back to their 40 meter for the next kickoff.
“I told the team, ‘You get the ball down there, and I’ll get it through the posts,” Baugus recounted her words of inspiration. “It didn’t matter how much time was left on the clock, or if we’re up by 100 points. It’s something that coach drills into us – we score last.”
Baugus’ teammates came through and with nine seconds left on the clock, Norwich received a penalty about 22 meters out and only meters off the touchline. Oor and Baugus conferenced.
“Emily said, ‘You can make this kick. What do you want to do,” Baugus recited. “I wanted to get a little closer, and we planned for a dropgoal. I said, ‘Give it to Baylee Annis. I’ll tell her to take it to the middle, we’ll get some good ruckers behind her, and we’ll go for another dropgoal.’ When Baylee took it in, I didn’t have time to hit a dropgoal from the side, so I gave it to Vanessa, who runs like a god. When we rucked over – luckily we got the penalty – but the plan was for a dropgoal. It’s the trust in your teammates that gets you there.”
That final penalty was dead-center, and there was little doubt that Baugus was going to nail it – one could see it in Stanford’s sagging shoulders as the flyhalf lined up the kick. Sure, the win came down to the final play, but Baugus and team aren’t thinking about the other ways they could have won this game.
“You come out with a W, what else are you looking for,” Baugus beamed. “Last year we were not the underdog; this year we are. I’m a senior, but if the girls leave me here, then I’m golden with that. But I feel like they can come out and win another one.”
Norwich will play Penn State in tomorrow’s DI final. The two faced each other last fall in a friendly, and PSU won by five points.
“If we can play them, then we can beat them,” Baugus said. “It would be the coolest thing in the whole wide world to have a DI championship after our DII championship, but I just love to play with them.”
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