Photo: M.J. Sarson
*12.3 UPDATE: Due to a live-stream outage we missed a converted try from Davenport. The final score was 47-20 and not 40-20 as previously reported.
The U.S. Air Force Academy won the 2018 USA Rugby Division I College Fall Championship with a 47-20 victory over Davenport University. The Panthers entered the match as the reigning champion, while the cadets had won the 2016 title.
Air Force owned the opening 25 minutes of the match and did well to keep the scoreboard ticking over. No. 8 Sierra DeHart kicked two early penalties, and backs captain Sara Cook dotted down the game’s first try for an 11-0 lead after 15 minutes. Cook worked well off of inside center Elizabeth Laboe, whose weaving runs committed defenders and opened up space out wide. Davenport’s open-field defense proved vulnerable.
More maneuvering from Cook saw the outside center nearly score, but quick support from Kaylee Eskeli allowed the wing to finish off the break in the try zone, 16-0.
Davenport started to come to life in the second quarter, and the Panthers started to look like themselves as scrumhalf Olivia Ortiz put the team on the front foot. But the sequence ended with a not-straight lineout, and that set piece plagued Davenport all game. Air Force did well to get hands on Davenport’s throw-ins, and the Panthers eventually started requesting scrums for penalty restarts.
Air Force took the opportunity to return play to Davenport’s end, gaining meters with every carry. Panthers attempted to relieve pressure after a scrum and clearance, but the kick only went 10 meters. Air Force worked the lineout to Cook, who pushed off soft defense for the try, converted by DeHart, 23-0.
The final 10 minutes of the first half shifted into Davenport’s favor, again centered around the sniping Ortiz. Paige Grossi was held up over line but the five-meter scrum allowed No. 8 Mariah Pruitt to have another go. Ortiz took the recycle for the dive-over try, 23-5.
Minutes later, Davenport prop Ashley Willsea powered over a second try, finishing off a well connected campaign down field. Air Force penalties also helped, as did Ortiz’s chip kick and scrambling ability, 23-10.
There the half ended and Air Force did an excellent job of making sure Davenport didn’t pick up where it left the first stanza. Generally the Colorado squad was stronger in contact, and players like Zoe Barnette and fellow forwards were very quick over the ball to turn over key possessions. Flyhalf Rhiannon Townsend also did a nice job of relieving pressure with long kicks that Davenport struggled to field cleanly.
And then there was rookie Adrienne Yoder, who showcased some excellent footwork in tight and pull-away speed for three tries in the second half. By minute 48, the flanker had scored two of those tries and DeHart added a nice off-center conversion for the 35-10 lead. There was still plenty of game to play, and Davenport was up for the chase, but turnovers hurt the Panthers.
At minute 58, Davenport outside center Megan Bird went on one of several weaving runs through the open-field defense and scored the team’s third try, 35-15. More positive carries from players like Paige Grossi, Veronica Overbeek and Bailey St. Amour saw a second surge, and then an Air Force yellow card provided the right opportunity for a comeback.
[12.3 Update: The live-stream dropped for approximately seven minutes, and during this time, Davenport scored a converted try, making the scoreline 35-22. When the feed returned, there was no mention of the try and the feed’s scoreboard did not return. Finally confirmed the score with Air Force coach Amy Rusert.]
But that Air Force counter-ruck and good goal-line defense kept the point differential in place. Once back to full strength, Air Force disrupted Davenport’s lineout, drew a penalty and moved the ball to Yoder for a 30-meter try, 40-22.
Ortiz, such a fun player, ended the game with a short-range try, and Bird nearly ran in another long-range try, but Cook – Air Force coaches’ selection for MVP – tracked down her opposite for the chase-down tackle. It was the last scoring attempt before the final kick to touch: 40-27 to Air Force.
Stay tuned for coach and player interviews.