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Wisconsin Returns to DII Title Match

  • 23 May 2016

More mud-caked smiles for Wisconsin, which booked its return ticket to the DII club national championship after a 31-17 semifinal victory over Harrisburg. The Harlots advanced to the final four after a 18-15 win over Burlington Saturday. Wisconsin defeated Charlotte 67-19 for the Sunday berth.

“Saturday’s rain turning the field wet was one thing; today was a quagmire. It really didn’t suit our style of play. Our fast players on the outside couldn’t plant, turn and run, so we had to play a 10-man style for a bit,” Wisconsin coach Bob Jafferis described flyhalf Elisa Becker’s attack strategy, feeding the ball back into the pack for go-forward meters. “Keep it close, draw in defenders, and then have some space out wide.”

But it wasn’t just the flyers who had trouble planting. There was no traction in the middle of the pitch and any change of direction or pace was impressive. Harrisburg No. 8 Michelle Kirk seemed undaunted and was a constant source for meters and inspiration. An early breakaway helped set up wing Emily McHenry, aka “McSpeedy,” for the game-opening try.

Wisconsin stuck to its game plan and was able to reach its most dangerous finisher, Felicia Carlson. The track crossover had the edge in sheer speed and pushed past some outstretched arms along the sideline for three tries on the day. Carlson accounted for one of the game’s turning points in the second half. Harrisburg got into a good patch of possession and was catching Wisconsin understaffed out wide. Some mishandled passes ended the threats, but it was only a matter of time before Harrisburg nailed that finishing pass. Instead, one such handling error put the ball on the ground in front of Carlson, who scooped it up and negated Harrisburg’s long possession with a long-range try.

Harrisburg got into some penalty trouble late in the first half, and Wisconsin scrumhalf Kristine Peterson was quick to take advantage with piercing runs from the mark. The Harlots were eventually punished for 10 minutes, as scrumhalf Erin Strelec went to the bin before the break. Wisconsin upped the pressure and used its excellent driving maul off the lineout to get close to the try line. The referee blew up the maul as it was drawn down and awarded a penalty try, which Becker converted easily, 14-5 into the half.

Another quick-tap break from Peterson put Wisconsin in good territory, and even though the finishing pass to a looping teammate was intercepted, Harrisburg’s ballcarrier was pushed into touch. Wisconsin drove its lineout calmly to the line, and prop Sarah Thomas dotted down, 19-5.

Harrisburg answered back after a series of solid phases kept the Pennsylvania side in scoring position. Kirk made good on the territory, taking a hard, fast angle off a ruck to slice through the defense 10 meters out, 19-12 with flanker Cortney Kolak’s conversion.

But just when the Harlots started to enjoy the smaller point differential, Wisconsin stole a ruck and moved the ball to No. 8 Grace Hovde. The loose forward broke up-field and just as the defense collapsed, passed out wide to Carlson, who finished the straightaway in the try zone.

Outside center Ashley Shaw also did a great job of passing through traffic to find space out wide, and she was equally effective at fullback when the centers needed some more power running. Jafferis singled out flanker Samantha Clevenger in the forwards, praising her field coverage despite the mud bowl.

Carlson added her third score for Wisconsin’s largest lead of the game, 31-12.

“Given the conditions, they had a bit of upper hand in the set pieces, but in open play, we moved around the park better,” Jafferis summarized. “Their back line was quality. They ran hard – it was hard to turn and chase – hard to do anything. We gave up penalties and put players in the bin – them too – so that had a pretty big effect on the outcome of the game.”

Harrisburg had the final say of the game, taking a weakside break off a scrum in for a try, 31-17. The Harlots proved worthy opponents, deserving of a top-four finish, and Wisconsin was grateful to be pushed in the penultimate stage.

“If we don’t play [Milwaukee] Scylla three times this season, then we don’t win today,” Jafferis said of prospering in tight games. “I don’t mean to badmouth any of the teams [at nationals] but I still contend that they’re the best team no one’s ever seen. Our Midwest bracket is so tight, and that’s what helps us win these close games.”

The ultimate challenge awaits in Life West, the West’s finalist. The Gladiatrix defeated Ventura 62-29 Saturday and Houston Athletic 97-8 in the semifinals (stay tuned for report). The Hayward, Calif., side will make its first appearance in a national final, in its first season as an eligible club.

DII NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPQF: Harrisburg 18-15 BurlingtonQF: Wisconsin 67-19 Charlotte QF: Life West 62-29 VenturaQF: Houston Athletic 46-26 KC Jazz

SF: Wisconsin 31-17 HarrisburgSF: Life West 97-8 Houston Athletic

Cons: Charlotte 26-7 Burlington

Cons: KC Jazz v Ventura

Wisconsin #NationalChampionship

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