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A NIRA Championship Through Freshman Eyes

  • 21 Nov 2021

Photo: Mark Washburn (@mwashburnphoto) for NIRA

Dartmouth College claimed the 2021 National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA) Division I National Championship with a 28-18 win against the U.S. Military Academy. Under the lights at Anderson Rugby Complex, the Big Green capped its first-ever undefeated season (9-0) and celebrated its second-ever NIRA trophy.

For a player like hooker Sia Meni – one of two freshman starters for Dartmouth, wing Sadie Schier being the other – it’s quite the start to a collegiate career. In addition to spending the first semester of college playing alongside capped USA 7s and 15s Eagles, and international and American age grade standouts, Meni had to learn the ways of the front row. Teammate Lauren Ferridge was huge in that education.

“[She] took me under her wing and showed me the ways of being a forward, specifically a hooker, since I have only ever been a back,” Meni thanked the junior prop.

Emily Henrich coming in for the hit / Photo: Mark Washburn (@mwashburnphoto) for NIRA

Then of course there was the national final, and those stakes bring their own set of nerves. To boot, the Nov. 20 game occurred on Army’s home pitch, under the lights and in front of an animated Black Knights crowd.

“Coming into the game my nerves were really high, especially since it would be our first evening game and I knew the stands would be packed with Army fans,” Meni confessed. “The fact that this would also be the biggest rugby game I have played in thus far in my life and I was expected to perform also added to my nervousness. I was confident about the rugby that would be played but the external factors made me very nervous.”

That’s where Dartmouth’s experience took over. Three minutes in, co-captain Emily Henrich raced into the try zone, and flyhalf Abbey Savin, who was perfect off the tee, added the conversion: 7-0.

Lilly Durbin on the run / Photo: Mark Washburn (@mwashburnphoto)

Approximately 15 minutes later, fifth-year prop Idia Ihensekhien put Dartmouth up by two tries, and Savin made it 14-0. Army responded, building into the attacking end, and the pressure forced a penalty that was in Codi Butt’s range. The fullback split the posts for the 14-3 scoreline into the break.

“As a team we had talked about playing a fast-tempo game and smothering them with our defense,” Meni explained. “We did not want to let up, especially coming into the second half. We knew Army would begin to up the intensity coming into the second half and that’s exactly what they did. They were really moving the ball and putting our defense to the test.”

Ihensekhien scored a second try, earning the Canadian the championship MVP award and pushing Dartmouth’s lead to 21-3. Then Army found some momentum.

Photo: Mark Washburn (@mwashburnphoto)

Army flyhalf Kaitlyn Schwarting is a fantastic playmaker. The 10 attacks the line, leads teammates into space, can send a pass halfway across the pitch, and just has great go-get-em energy. Pair that creativity with the savvy that is Julia Riekena and Naomi Colin – among a host of others – and that’s a team that is going to rally.

Molly Murtagh and Butt scored back-to-back tries, but the extras failed, so Army trailed 21-13. There were still 18 or so minutes to play, so the Black Knights had time to close the gap.

“When Army started to surge in the second half, we took some breaths in the try zone during the kick and just briefly touched on what we needed to do to hold them,” Meni recalled. “But ultimately we took those few minutes to remind each other that we’re here in front of our friends and family playing the game we love, and that this was our chance to regather and bring the win home.”

The turning point occurred minutes later when Dartmouth fullback Lilly Durbin pierced the defensive line and outrun everyone for a fabulously fast try, 28-13 with Savin’s extras. That made it a three-score game for Army with only 13 minutes to play.

Sadie Schier in the tackle / Photo: Mark Washburn (@mwashburnphoto)

“There was of course MVP of the game, Idia Ihensekhien, who had told me before the game that she was going to go for as long, and as hard she could, so to see her doing exactly that was the extra motivation I needed to get through that second half,” Meni thought on memorable performances. “Lilly Durbin’s presence on the field was also crazy like always. Sadie Schier and Sophie Ragg were making some great backfield tackles and just holding it down defensively. All the older girls were just so calm and collected during the entire game, so for the younger ones to see them playing like that helped a ton.”

With two minutes to go, Army sent wing Sydney Schaaf away for one more try, 28-18 the final.

Aside from Meni and Schier as first-years on the starting squad, this season marked sophomore flankers Ava Procter and Nyah Cordero first in NIRA competition. Army also trusted freshmen Emma Gamboa and Sophia Linder to play important roles at scrumhalf and outside center, respectively.

“Until this morning, when the aches and pains set in, I felt on top of the world,” Meni closed. “Now it just feels unreal. I feel like I have just experienced the best-case scenario for any freshman college sports season, which leaves me anxious about the future since I feel like my base expectations of a season are a bit high, but I am certain though that playing with and becoming family with this special group of girls was the real win, going home with a national title was just an addition.”

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