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Davenport isn’t the only team that graduated some important players in the Class of 2018. Air Force, which is heading to its third USA Rugby DI College Fall Championship final in four years, bid farewell to stalwarts like Lauren Fortney, Kelsie O’Brien, Noelle Heiser, Funmi Akinlosotu – to name a few – and had to regroup this fall. Fortunately, Air Force embraced “Next Woman Up” rugby and came into its own this fall. Now there’s an opportunity for some vindication against Davenport this weekend.
Air Force won the western berth to the DI fall final after defeating Sam Houston State 76-5 in the quarterfinals and Minnesota 37-20 in the semifinals. The Colorado Springs program is well familiar with the Gophers, and the three coaches – Air Force’s Amy Rusert and Minnesota’s Rebecca Radtke and Lynelle Kugler – are all former Twin Cities Amazons, so there’s some friendly banter and repartee there. But the game is always serious business.
“It’s one of those friendly grudge matches. We like seeing them. … But we knew it was going to be a tough match. They always bring it, especially in their forward play,” Rusert said. “We watched them against Notre Dame Saturday [43-12 win] and they did all the small things well: Didn’t lose possession, weren’t excitable. So we knew we had to figure out a way to deprive the forwards of possession and just get into our shape, exhaust the field and play fast rugby out wide.”
Air Force took a 13-10 lead into halftime, and Rusert recalled the turning point that helped the team put some distance on the scoreboard.
“This year’s scrumhalf was a flanker, and played some wing. She’s really tenacious and great over the ball. She likes to turn over the ball quickly and can withstand the clear-out,” Rusert said of Devin Doyle. “She had this beautiful poach in our 40 – just came out with the ball and with support. It was one of those big momentum shifts, and everybody had this surge of energy after that win – especially because she’s a slight player but just so tenacious.”
Doyle is just one of the players who exemplified the “Next Woman Up” motto this season. When sophomore captain and openside flanker Jessica Beyer took a season-ending injury against Navy, Doyle and No. 8 Sierra DeHart, who moved from prop to the back of the scrum this year, stepped up their presence in the forwards. In addition to being a steady try-scorer, DeHart is solid off the tee and adds an extra kicking element in the loose.
The program also gained some exciting new athletes, including junior Adrienne Yoder, who joined during the first half of October. The crossover athlete hails from soccer and boxing, and is “a superlative athlete who has a really high ceiling,” Rusert said of the flanker.
The squad is versatile, growing in confidence, and improving with each outing. Part of that growth process depends on good competition, and Rusert tipped her hat to the development of the DI Rocky Mountain conference and the work of commissioner Ed McKenna. Combined with the friendly against BYU, which is “always an education,” Air Force felt challenged and prepared for regionals after playing through a tough conference.
“Seeing it from a leadership perspective, I have never seen such a cohesive team that pushes each other in different positions on the pitch,” explained backs captain Sara Cook, a senior who recently secured a coveted pilot spot after graduation. “To an extent, we have all shifted around at some point in our rugby careers and developed an appreciation for every position and the woman in it. Going into Davenport, I believe embracing our ability to go out there and execute what has got us to where we are is key. In the end, we just play rugby and if we make mistakes, we make them aggressively.”
Air Force and Davenport met during last year’s fall semifinals, a game that ended in a 15-5 win to the Panthers. That game, however, didn’t provide much intel that’s applicable to Sunday, as muddy, cold conditions slowed down two teams that like to play wide and fast. And as mentioned, both teams graduated several influential players.
“We’re humbled and excited to be back to the championship game,” said Rusert. “They have a fire in their belly. And for those who were a part of that Chicago loss [to Davenport in the 2017 fall semifinals], they’re excited to see Davenport in the last game of the season.”
The DI fall championship final occurs on Sunday, Dec. 2 at the Matthews Sportsplex in Charlotte, N.C. The game will live-stream via FloRugby at 11 a.m. Eastern.