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AIC Contends for NIRA DII Trophy

  • 16 Nov 2021

Three Division II teams had the 15s numbers to compete in the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA) post-season. West Chester University advanced directly to the Nov. 21 championship, as Queens University of Charlotte and American International College (AIC) decided the other finalist last Saturday. The Yellow Jackets traveled to Charlotte, N.C., for the NIRA semifinal and battled to a 22-20 victory.

RELATED: Fixtures & Scores: Nov. 12-14

The first half of AIC’s fall was rife with frustration, as opponents either canceled games or showed up with fewer than 15 players (read more from AIC head coach T Fletcher). The Yellow Jackets played their first 15s match on Oct. 6 and did so against the reigning NIRA DII national champion.

Doreen Madalian photos from the Oct. 6 AIC vs. West Chester match

“Playing in a different division [until this season], we didn’t know what West Chester was going to be like,” said AIC senior Kassidy Pothier, who captains the team alongside older sister and grad student Ally. “I don’t know that their title intimidated us than the fact that they play a skilled, fast-pace game. It wasn’t like any other game we’ve played yet. Then we took that into the Queens game. ‘O.K., they’re going to play similarly with quick ball and give us a full 80 minutes.’”

West Chester won the regular-season game against AIC 34-12, but the outing provided great intel into the squad’s strengths and work-ons. Ten days later, AIC played Queens at a neutral venue in Maryland and lost 36-5.

“The first half, we sat back a little bit – maybe we were feeling it out – but in the second half we dominated physically. We realized that we do tend to hesitate a bit in the first half and then come back in the second,” Ally said. “We like playing high-level teams, because we like to meet and exceed those levels. And those two games set a level of expectations for ourselves and our teammates.”

Doreen Madalian photos from the Oct. 6 AIC vs. West Chester match

“Playing a team that is physical like Queens helped us find our fire and our edge to go forward,” Kassidy added. “We took that ‘practice as you play’ mentality and drilled that into our heads. We asked everyone for their ‘Why’. Why are you here? Why do you want to win? Why are you on this team and at practice every day? We made everyone say it out loud and then we held everyone accountable.”

Queens lost its regular season match to West Chester 25-17, but earned home-field advantage for the championship play-in game against AIC. It’s been a while since the Yellow Jackets have been in this post-season environment, and the upperclassmen had to impart the significance of this accomplishment to the younger players.

“As seniors, we’re trying to tell them how big of a deal this is,” Ally said.

Meanwhile, the team focused on defensive tactics when readying for Queens. The Royals’ size and physicality had challenged the integrity of AIC’s rucks, so the squad worked on clearing out and securing the breakdown. Players needed a strong, secure seal, so the scrumhalf could move the ball quickly and without disruption.

Doreen Madalian photos from the Oct. 6 AIC vs. West Chester match

“It was a very good game from both sides, back and forth, but I will say that we determined the pace of the game,” Ally praised the breakdown work. “There were times when we sat back on defense a bit and that’s when they dominated. When we didn’t do our roles, they took advantage, because they’re an amazing team. It was such a fun game because it was such a high level of competition and both teams are so skillful.”

Queens held a 10-7 lead after the first half, bookending AIC senior Brooke Garcia’s try and Kassidy’s conversion with a penalty and converted try. A Queens yellow card provided some extra space on attack and AIC sent junior Jessica Berggren away for the lead-changing try, 12-10. The visitors then extended to 19-10, as Annekkia Ritter-Truxal scooped up a dropped ball for a try, which Kassidy converted.

And then it was Queens’ turn to overtake the lead.

Doreen Madalian photos from the Oct. 6 AIC vs. West Chester match

“When they scored back-to-back tries in the second half, they were taking advantage of our mistakes,” Ally said. “We had to turn it around as a team and keep each other accountable that what we were doing was setting us up for success.”

“Both teams were leaving everything on the field knowing that this was maybe their last game of the season,” Kassidy added. “Everyone was determined to win and it came down to who capitalized more when the other team took a break.”

In the final 10 minutes, penetrating runs from sophomore Keiani Pangelinan, Berggren and rookie Ivana Kiripati tested Queens’ composure, and another yellow card surfaced. Another penalty inside Queens’ 22 was in Kassidy’s range and the senior slotted the three points for the fifth lead change, 22-20.

But it was the fifth and final lead change, as AIC held off a hungry Queens side for the win.

Doreen Madalian photos from the Oct. 6 AIC vs. West Chester match

“We’re a very young team and have a lot of players who are freshmen and sophomores,” Kassidy said. “They really show up every game but you could really tell who wanted it more at the end of this one. Our younger players – and upperclassmen, too – were putting their bodies on the line and bringing that aggression and fire to finish the game.”

The team took time to celebrate the win, and by Monday it was back to business.

“Even though there were parts where we faltered, we focused on the things that we did really well that game,” Ally said of the post-mortem. “When we launched on defense, we put them on their back foot and were able to turn over the ball. … We dominated the scrums the entire game.
That’s something we’ve been working on. It’s time to acknowledge everyone’s hard work and the high level of effort we’ve been putting in at practice.”

The team is watching film of West Chester and will alter its game plan accordingly.

Doreen Madalian photos from the Oct. 6 AIC vs. West Chester match

“Queens is very physical so we played with a physical mindset,” Ally said. “Where West Chester has a really great back line. They have a really nice 13 and same with the 15, so we’re really picking on those things and adjusting our mindset.”

The sisters acknowledged that Sunday will inevitably bring nerves, but they’re doing their best to treat the DII championship like any other game.

“It’s all about finding the right mentality,” Ally said. “This team has skill and an actual bond, unlike any other team I’ve had here before. We have the potential to go all the way, and it’s just having confidence in yourself and building up from there. As a team as soon as we get that first touch or hit on the field, it’s ‘O.K., we’re in, we’re playing, this is happening.’ We’re checked in.

‘We’re so hyped right now,” she closed. “This is the farthest this program has ever come. Yes, that could be pressure but at the end of the day, we know our level of play and will hold each other to it. It’s all positive talk.”

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