After the first fall practice, Georgia coach Becky Martin knew she had a special team. Knockout recruitment brought 50 players to that training session, which also featured UGA’s first set of players with four years of consistent coaching. Martin herself received a boost as former Chicago North Shore stars Maggie Craig and Devin Torii-Craig relocated to the South and infused their wisdom into the pack. The head coach’s optimism was validated on Saturday, when UGA defeated powerhouse Georgia Tech 36-17 in its SIRC opener.
“They played magically,” Martin said. “It was the most intense, focused I had ever seen them. The seniors had a chip on their shoulders. They’ve always lost, and lost big, to Georgia Tech. They didn’t want to do that anymore. This year, we were prepared to put up a good fight.”
UGA took the first lead as Hafia Mkumba dotted down, and then Alex Taylor scored to reclaim the lead after a Tech try. The back-and-forth continued all half.
“We were scoring very different tries,” Martin said. “It can be demoralizing to put all of these phases together and score a nice try, and then give up a knucklehead turnover that they return for a try. So I was really proud of the way UGA was able to bounce back.”
During halftime, the team talked about adjustments to the backs’ defensive alignment, but it was the fresh legs off the bench that truly influenced the second half.
“We’re a totally different team as far as depth goes,” Martin said. “Like most southern college rugby teams, we’ve always struggled with depth – 14 players at practice and hoping that 15th person shows up for the match Saturday. It’s why we dropped down to DII, because we couldn’t field a team consistently.
“Georgia Tech has some studs,” the coach added. “They’re immensely talented and well coached, but they’re struggling with numbers. They’re where we were two years ago. You can’t play this intense of a game without subs, so we knew that if we could shut down a couple of players and maintain possession, then we’d have a chance.”
It’s no secret that Tech All American Chi Chi Chukwueke is a force with which to contend, and rookie Taylor stood up. She was charged with shutting down the power center and performed admirably. Mkumba and Catalina Silva at flanker, and No. 8 debutante Morgan Frank led the way in defensive pressure. Rookie scrumhalf Jennifer Barto did a fantastic job working around hotly contested, sometimes messy breakdowns.
But game’s end, Mkumba, Taylor, Shanice Bond (2) and Rae Ann Saulnier scored tries, while Aleia Bellcross added three conversions.
“There were a lot of cheers, hugging, tears – everything you would expect from a game with so many emotional tie-ins,” Martin conveyed the team’s final-whistle reaction. “The seniors, they’ve been preparing for four years, and have had that desire through all of the rough losses to a very good team. They played as one unit, and that was very exciting.”
That journey has bred a no-all-star culture on the team. They’ve been humbled in the past and now are starting to enjoy the rewards of building a program. Consequently, UGA isn’t looking past any opponent in the SIRC, but the desire to return to playoffs is very much alive.
“Last year, we learned there’s no sleeping in the SIRC,” Martin said. “You can’t show up thinking you don’t stand a chance to lose.
“We’ve always thought we had a chance to play to post-season,” Martin continued. “We had a great experience last year [at SIRC playoffs] and we want another shot at Alabama.”
In other SIRC news, Kennesaw State defeated UT Chattanooga 20-14, Emory beat Georgia Southern 84-0, and North Georgia got the 40-0 forfeit win over Middle Tennessee.