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DII Spring Finalists Set

  • 04 May 2019
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Salisbury University and Fresno State secured their spots in the USA Rugby DII College Spring Championship after winning their respective semifinals in Matthews, N.C. The finalists faced each other in the 2018 3rd place game, so the teams have some knowledge of each other despite their opposite-coast locations.

RELATED: Spring College Championship brackets

Salisbury and Eckerd College kicked off the playoff doubleheader, and in the first half, the Sea Gulls did a good job capitalizing on its mobile size and covered the Sirens’ speed well. From the opening kickoff, Salisbury demonstrated that its pride in its defense was not misplaced, as it allowed Eckerd to work the ball sideline to sideline but drove the attack backward. Additionally, line-breaks – most notably coming from Kat Scheerer, who seemed to will her way around the pitch, and also Stephie France and Chloe Hill – were well covered by fullback Haley Sheldon, a knockout on the day. With that said, Eckerd had the better scrum, a significant win given the size difference.

On attack, Salisbury consolidated the majority of its attack around or just off the breakdown, and got punishing carries out of players like Maria Beteta, Annika Geitner, Haley Gee and more. Eckerd didn’t contest the rucks much and opted to gainline defense, but didn’t launch hard enough to meet ballcarriers behind the line or to slow the advance. Inside center Kirby Given and prop Sophie Clendenin scored after pack-concentrated campaigns down the pitch. Sheldon then scooped up a knocked-on pass from Scheerer to Franz – Eckerd won on speed but there were connection / finishing issues – and returned it for a try, 17-0 into the break.

Just when it seemed like Salisbury had the win sorted out, Eckerd came back in the second half and demonstrated an ability to score quickly. Franz took a pass off her laces for a breakaway, and after a couple of exchanges and a penalty, scrumhalf Anastasia Babicki took an angled run to the try zone. Penalties then helped the Sirens stay on attack, and longer sets of phases saw the defense disjoint. Scheerer evaded her opposite shooting up off the line and weaved through for the try, 17-10.

Salisbury turned over a deep restart, and after a piercing Gee pick, wing Marla McNeil powered past the sideline defense for the try, 22-10. In the final 10 minutes, the Sea Gulls extended their lead after consistent defensive pressure eventually set up a pick=and-go campaign at the line, and Given dove into the goal post for the try.

With the game essentially decided, senior and Scheerer emptied the tank with two individual, long-range tries. It was truly inspirational and closed the gap to 29-20 to Salisbury.

Fresno State and Tulane followed, and the two teams, which faced each other in the 2018 semifinals, deployed similarly styled games against each other. Both sides had the ability to take advantage of mistakes and score quickly, making for an exciting bout, but Fresno State was more consistent over 80 minutes and capitalized in the fourth quarter for a pull-away 57-17 win.

The Bulldogs had the better connected back line. The players were fast and shifty but also baited the defense and time passes really well. Inside center Averi Peterson was masterful in this regard and if she wasn’t running a slicing strike line, she was wriggling that finishing pass out of contact to speedy teammates like Laura Seeger-Ellison or Meaghan Gallagher, who accounted for the game’s first three tries.

Tulane wasn’t without. Scrumhalf Carolina LaGow did a good job of switching the flow of play when the weak side showed promise, and a sideline break from prop Sophie Tannen put the team in position for its first try. After some penalties – which the Green Wave used well en route to points – LaGow went weak to Tannen for the score, 7-5 after 10 minutes.

At the 20-minute mark, Fresno State went up 19-5 after wing Chetna Kumar-Naicka went on a sideline run and then prop Mayra Aguilar continued with some fends forward. Peterson sucked in the defense and hit Gallagher for the wing’s third try, 19-5 with flyhalf Regan Garner’s conversions. Seeger-Ellison looked like she was going to follow with a quick score but Gwen Leifer – who is the life blood of Tulane – got the turn over and clearance kick away. Leifer was not only a knockout in open-field defense, but was the spark of the offense, as demonstrated during her second-half try of sheer will.

Tulane front row Hayley Alexander charged ahead and got the offload through contact to wing Emily Monaco, who motored in for the try. But the point differential was restored when a clearance kick went straight to Gallagher, who moved the ball to Peterson and then Kumar-Naiko for the half-ending try, 24-10 to Fresno.

Tulane showed some frustration in the second half, ever-so-evident in a hurried kick to touch or pounding fist on the ground when corralled into touch. That pressure to rally heightened when Ellison-Seeger cut back across the defense after a Kumar-Naicker breakaway for the try, 31-10. But Leifer kept the team moving forward, sending a nice cross-field kick to space, chasing it down and forcing a turnover. Tulane stole a Fresno scrum and Leifer hit the line with gusto and went directly into the try zone, 31-17, with Rohen Turner’s conversion.

As it turned out, that was the last of Tulane’s scoring, and there were still 25-plus minutes to play. Instead, the verve of Fresno State’s bench started to impact momentum, especially as the heat peaked. Amy Squire, Violet Lopez and Megan Oleski were solid all day and got a boost from reserves like Vanessa Maravilla.

Four more tries followed from scrumhalf Raquel Macias, Seeger-Ellison, Kumar-Naicker and back sub Nicole Munoz, and Garner’s conversions afforded the 40-point win.

A new spring champion will be named on Saturday, with kickoff at 4 p.m. ET. Tune into FloRugby.com for the live-stream.

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