Championship MVP Erica Hipp places the ball. /// Photo: Jackie Finlan (See more photos)
UC Davis and UVA, while proud to advance to the DI spring championship, would have liked the opportunity to compete for a national championship. But as the fast, entertaining game evolved on Saturday, one couldn’t imagine a better contest between better opponents. So well paired, the teams exchanged leads and needed injury time to decide a winner.
UC Davis knocked the opening kickoff to put UVA in good position. Some penalties, aggressive quick-taps and jersey tackles allowed the East Coasters to stay on attack, and attack they did. The backline was expertly managed by Frankie Beller, who has the crispest of passes and seems immune to mistake. UVA coach Nancy Kechner praised her center duo of Zoe Schmitt – a great set-up player – and power incarnate Summer Harris-Jones. And then of course there was Joy Jefferson, the best finisher on the pitch. The wing needed an inch or slightest disruption in play, and she was gone. She scored three tries down the sideline.
But the first one went to Harris-Jones, fewer than two minutes into the game, all stemming from that opening knock-on and continued pressure.
“What was hard was that they played almost exactly like us in a lot of ways,” said Davis forward captain Caroline Sequiera. “We haven’t played a team that’s smaller, faster just like us and constantly attacking. That’s what made it hard – we haven’t seen a team like us the whole year, so that’s what challenged us.”
Davis got on the board a few minutes later. The Aggies were more exciting in open play, favoring a never-say-die offloading game that forced a scramble defense. Driven by inside center Sydnee Watanabe, it was high risk and exciting, and everyone got involved. Front rows Brenda Erickson and Sequeira (also an excellent poacher), flanker Erin Martin, outside center and MVP Erica Hipp, and wing Diana Nguyen were all well adept at this fast-paced offense. Some of the offloads in traffic didn’t connect, causing an abrupt change in possession, and that hurt momentum at different points in the game.
Starting from a scrum in UVA’s end, Nguyen finished off some back movements down the sideline for the corner try. Flyhalf Becca Lehman added a penalty five minutes later to take an 8-5 lead.
That lead was short-lived, as UVA sent the restart into Davis’ try zone, so Lehman returned the dropout to midfield. Jefferson saw a little space in a slightly broken defense, took the corner with a fend and scored to regain the lead. The wing had a crushing effect. Davis was dominating possession, playing really exciting ball, but UVA was making more efficient use of the turnovers (there were so many penalties, on either side). UVA was more methodic in its phases, and when the ball moved to Jefferson, she was too good one-on-one. She scored again for a 15-8 lead with 10 minutes remaining in the half. (With that said, a highlight occurred when Jefferson took the ball up the sideline as Davis fans groaned, but prop Erickson took the angle and made a nice tackle to end the threat.)
Hipp scored Davis’ second try eight minutes before the break. From a tap penalty, Martin spun out of contact and hit Sequiera, who got close to the line and was nearly held up. Ball recycled to Watanabe, who put Hipp away for the try, 15-13, before the break.
Lehman missed a penalty about three minutes in, and then UVA took its biggest lead of the game. Jersey tackling allowed UVA to keep the ball moving, and Jefferson and Cary Wingo dotted down for a 25-13 cushion.
“We had a lull in the middle of the game,” Sequeira said. “In that last 15 minutes, we said, ‘This is our seniors’ last game. We better ball out until we fall out.’ We came back. When we scored the try in the last 15 minutes off the penalty, that’s when we really started ramping up.”
Fast, eager phases put Nguyen into the try zone for her second try, and Lehman’s conversion hit the post and bounced in (25-20). The penalties were coming fast and furiously, and Davis kept the pressure on with quick taps. Sequeira was on the mark each time and driving her shoulders into the defense. With about six minutes to go, the hooker was rewarded with a try in the corner.
“The last 15 minutes of the game was some of our best rugby all year,” the forwards captain said. “The whole 80 minutes maybe not, but the last 15 minutes … I’m so proud.”
But the best was yet to come. As time wore off the clock and minds started considering overtime, Davis kept attacking. As the ball crossed midfield, it moved to Hipp, who saw an opportunity. She cut across the defense. She outraced an exhausted defense when it mattered most, and scored the game-winning try, 30-25, with no time on the clock.
“She really put the team on her back,” Davis coach Gary Gordon said. “She stepped up huge when it counted the most. She’s a very hardworking, unselfish player that saw a gap, took a great angle and came up with a spectacular game-winning try.”
Hipp rightfully earned MVP, and she’s our pick for Player of the Week as well.
“I was captain last year and we made it to Sweet 16s, which was the first time in a long time we made it,” said Sequiera, a graduating senior. “This year to make it to the spring championship is amazing, although it still would have been nice if we got the chance to fight for a national title.”
Even so, there were several amazing games that unfolded on Saint Mary’s pitch that day, but none were so memorable as the UVA vs. UC Davis showdown.