Winona State and Vassar College will contest the USA Rugby DII College Fall Championship, a rematch of the 2017 title bout that went the Black Katts’ way by two points. Winona State beat Cincinnati 34-7 in Saturday’s semifinal, while Vassar College topped the U.S. Coast Guard Academy 43-26.
Wet weather marked the day, but the effects were more evident in the first semifinal between Winona State and Cincinnati. Unforced handling errors, unstable ball placement but also aggressive counter-rucks impeded continuity on both sides. It took 25 minutes, but Winona State eventually sent lock Summer Downs in for a try after solid carries from flanker Diana Tapia and prop Madelyn Rabideau – who was thunderous all day. Inside center and field captain Emily Becker kicked the first of two conversions, 7-0.
Minutes later, Winona No. 8 Gabby Calametti broke off a scrum for a long break and favorable field position. Cincinnati missed opportunities to turn its well worked turnovers – led in particular by No. 8 Gabby Lowman – into pressure relieved, and Winona’s pick-and-go game put Makayla Leraas in for the first of the prop’s three tries on the day, 12-0 into halftime.
Cincinnati returned to the pitch on the front foot, and center Justine Perl’s quick tap saw the senior to Winona’s five meter. After a punch at the line, the ball swung wide to Jess Sang, who connected with fullback Madeleine Conklin for the try. The co-captain kicked the conversion, 12-7 after two minutes.
But that was the last of the scoring for Cincinnati, as Winona wrestled away momentum and kept the game in its attacking end for the rest of the game. Emily Krahn, who moved from fullback to flyhalf after Annika Culver left injured, sliced through the defense for a try. Minutes later, an excellent cross-field kick and quick chase from Becker put the Minnesota school in scoring position, and Leraas dotted down shortly afterward, 24-7.
Cincinnati didn’t have much success out wide, as wing Elizabeth Streitz was particularly solid there, but both teams attempted 50/50 passes in the slick conditions. The Ohio team’s lineout was better, though, and Lowman did a good job of disrupting the Black Katts’ throw-ins.
Calametti scored off an eightman pick, and Leraas scored a third try after Becker and Andler connected for long runs, 34-7 the final.
The first half of the Coast Guard vs. Vassar College game contrasted starkly to the previous semifinal. Vassar deployed an intentioned forward attack, picking from the base of rucks and right into the one channel, and did so with little error. The Brewers’ carries were quickly followed by flat-backed ruckers, and the pack patiently took meters or kicked downfield after a Coast Guard offsides penalty. And when the ball did spin away from the pack, hard-striking inside center Molly Lynch switched back in.
The strategy worked to the tune of four tries after 30 minutes. Prop Kate Sworden and No. 8 Oshana Reich dotted down twice apiece, while flyhalf Aislinn Vences-Dimas kicked the extras, 24-0.
The Bears’ defense was well set around the ruck, but that fast-up tackler wasn’t supported by a quick counter-ruck in attempt to challenge Vassar’s possession. Coast Guard did take away the opportunity for the offload but that didn’t appear to be the Brewers’ in-tight strategy.
As admirable as Vassar’s commitment and execution of its game plan, Coast Guard lock Hayden Short gets the nod for awe-inspiring performances. Short was absolutely relentless, often making back-to-back-to-back tackles with meter-subtracting force. Short, who is in the USA system, was equally as powerful with ball in hand and crucial in the Bears’ scoring.
Right before the break, Coast Guard got a glimpse of what works against Vassar’s defensive line speed and aggressive rucking. Even though the Bears were being driven backward, the team held onto possession long enough to exploit an overcommitment to the breakdown. The ball moved wide and Short sent a no-look pass to wing Mary Sims, who motored for the first of two long-range scores. Fullback Hollis Roush converted for the 24-7 halftime score.
Coast Guard did well to keep that momentum immediately after the break, taking advantage of numbers in the ruck to move the ball to Roush. The fullback scored and converted (24-14), but then Vassar responded immediately. A penalty kick to touch and solid lineout allowed scrumhalf Jennie To to dot down from a half-meter out, 29-14.
At the 50-minute mark, the Bears closed in when hooker Claudia Esposo sent a flat pass to Short bursting on. The lock sucked in the defense on a fending run and then hit Sims on the sideline for the sprint to the corner, 29-19.
There the game stood for the next 10 minutes, until two converted scores early in the fourth quarter put it away for Vassar. The Brewers mixed up their goal-line game a bit, as To, a great game manager, sent the ball farther from the ruck. Sworden showed off some open-field skills and cut back across Roush for the prop’s third try. The forwards put together a nice driving lineout for the next try, and Meg Martin did the dive-over honors, 43-19.
Coast Guard had the final word, again moving the ball away from congestion for the most success. Reserve Dorothy Dennis won the one-on-one battle and flew to the game’s final try, 43-26 with Roush’s conversion.
Sunday begins with the 3rd place match between Coast Guard and Cincinnati at 1 p.m. Eastern, and the final follows at 3 p.m.