Harrisburg had only one league loss for which to atone – a 26-12 defeat to Brandywine on October 10 – as it advanced to the DII Mid-Atlantic post-season last weekend. After pulling away from Doylestown in the second half of the teams’ semifinal, the Harlots got their shot at redemption and earned a 27-15 victory for the conference championship. Harrisburg now heads to the DII national quarterfinals in Pittsburgh for the first time in about a decade.
The current team sports a few veterans who accompanied Harrisburg to its last appearance at nationals. It’s the combination of that expertise, the return of players who took leave for childbirth and injuries, and the talented core of youth that saw everything come together this year.
“This is the first year that we have everyone back and strong,” said Harrisburg assistant coach Julie Hile, who was co-captain in the fall until suffering an ACL tear. “We have an extremely talented and athletic group.”
Front row Angie Raub captains the squad and gets good support from senior pack players like Cortney Kolak, Michelle Kirk and Courtney Reapsome. Veteran scrumhalf Erin Strelec is the hinge, and she works nicely with flyhalf Georgia Goodman, who deploys a very fast backline. Back three Emily McHenry and Elizabeth Cook are the flyers, while the defense of centers Rebecca Lengle and Lindsay Libengood helps produce more opportunities.
The weekend began against Doylestown, the third-ranked team in the league.
“The first half was a good match-up,” Hile spoke to Doylestown’s 5-0 lead. “It was back and forth. They’re so fit and solid, and we had to adjust defensively. We took a sin bin at the 27th minute and Doylestown knew how to capitalize for the score.”
Back to full strength, Harrisburg shifted into gear in the second half and saw No. 8 Kirk score two minutes in … and then 10 minutes in … and then 13 minutes in. Outside center Libengood dotted down as did McHenry and wing Melissa Packer. Flanker Kolak added two conversions for the 34-5 win and berth to the final.
Brandywine beat York & Lancaster 44-7 on Saturday. All of the Riot’s tries came out of the backs: Nicole Benedetti (2), Sarah Ross, Jenna Ponto (2), Karen Hall, Lisa Rake, Whitney Hartshorne. Benedetti tacked on the extras.
“During the past two years, we’ll travel to them and lose, and then they’ll travel here and we’ll win,” Hile spoke to the teams’ rivalry. “Brandywine is a technical, tough team, and they don’t leave room for error. We knew that if we let up that they’re capable of pulling away. So we wanted to come out super hard [in the final].”
Harrisburg did just that. The Harlots worked the ball wide, employed some loops and saw Libengood get around the defense for a try in the third minute. Goodman added the conversion for the 7-0 lead and healthy dose of confidence.
Brandywine answered back and put centers Benedetti and Ponto in for tries (10-7), but Harrisburg had the last word of the half, as Kirk scored her fourth try of the weekend. Goodman added the two-pointer for the 14-10 lead into the break.
“Not a whole lot changed in the second half,” Hile reflected on the pull-away. “Our pack was finishing their tackles and kept pushing. The backs were taking it out wide and capitalizing. Brandywine, they kept their heads up and kept coming up strong. We knew it was going to take everything we had left.”
Kolak knocked over a penalty three minutes in, and then McHenry pushed it out to 22-10 with a minute 60 try. A few minutes later, Libengood completed her hat trick for the weekend. The score sat at 27-10 until the closing minutes, when Ponto dotted the final try, 27-15.
“It was super emotional for us, especially for the girls who’ve been around 10-plus years,” Hile said. “This was the first time we’ve won the division. We have gone to playoffs so many times in the past and just haven’t been able to clinch that spot to nationals. And I think we surprised ourselves a bit.”
Harrisburg is taking a deep breath right now, recouping from injury and then moving full force into preparing for DII nationals, the eastern bracket of which is in Pittsburgh, four hours away. The Harlots will face Northeast champion Burlington in the quarterfinals, and then either Wisconsin or Charlotte on day two.