Divine Savior Holy Angels (DSHA) outscored its opponents 153-13 en route to the Single-School National Invitational Tournament (NIT) title last weekend in Glendale, Colo. The Dashers last won the trophy in 2017 and finished third in 2018.
DSHA entered the NIT as the top-ranked team, having won the late-April Midwest Championship over Catholic Memorial (Wisc.), last year’s NIT runner-up.
“We were definitely confident, especially coming from Midwest [championship]. But we didn’t want to be overconfident because we knew how that would end up,” senior co-captain Savannah Peterson said. “We knew a couple of the teams from the Midwest, but we were kind of unsure about the others – especially Summit. We had read an article that they were the number one 15s team in the country, so we weren’t feeling like total favorites.”
Peterson speaks from experience and is one of several seniors who, as a sophomore, helped DSHA to the 2017 NIT title. After finishing third at the 2018 NIT, Peterson confessed that the senior class entered this season with a chip on its shoulder, and used it as motivation in returning to the top of the podium.
“Just talking about DSHA rugby, our legacy is more intimidating than any opponent we could ever face,” Peterson said. “We play for the past players and want to keep their legacy alive. I always tell my coaches, who taught me so much now that I’m a senior, that our high school experience would not have been the same without rugby. And that’s what we play for.”
First up was Palmer of Colorado, a state that only hosts 7s for its girls’ high schools. Head coach Amy Rusert, who coaches Air Force Academy and is commissioner of NIRA, couldn’t pass up the opportunity to compete in a national tournament so close to home. The Dashers took a little time to find their rhythm, but once they did, there was no letting up.
“We were able to figure out their game pretty quickly. They were more of a 7s team, or so we heard, so we used our experience and knowledge of 15s [to win],” Peterson said of the 57-0 quarterfinal victory. “But just being able to play teams at a higher level really challenges our team to be better.”
Meanwhile, Grandville (Mich.) defeated 2018 DII NIT champion Broken Arrow (Okla.) 36-10 in the quarterfinals and lined up against DSHA in the semifinals. The teams had faced each other in the Midwest semifinals as well.
“When we played Grandville at Midwest, it wasn’t the best conditions – rainy and cold – so there were a lot of knock-ons in the wet weather,” Peterson said. “Going into nationals, we knew they got back one of their centers, who’s a key player, so we had to watch their back three. Their scrumhalf, too, is big ball runner.”
DSHA won 71-3 to book its spot in the NIT final against Catholic Memorial, which also went 2-0 on the day. The Crusaders defeated McMinn (Tenn.) 78-21 and then rallied from a first-half deficit to defeat Summit (Colo.) 30-7 in the semifinals.
“Catholic Memorial again,” Peterson recalled her reaction when she learned of DSHA’s final opponent. “We’re pretty tired of playing against them, but we get it. They’re such a good team and no one else can really compete with us, and all we care about is good competition. But we did really want to play a team that wasn’t from Wisconsin.”
On Sunday, the placing matches relocated to inside Infinity Park. The day started with the 7th place match and saw Broken Arrow defeat McMinn 48-38, then Capital (Idaho) beat Palmer 45-12 for 5th. Hometown Summit held on for a 19-12 3rd place win over Grandville. Meanwhile, DSHA leaders got their teammates in the right head space for the season’s most important match against a familiar opponent.
“We know CMH. We know their players; we follow them on Instagram and Facebook. They’re 15 minutes away from us,” Peterson explained the advice she gave to younger teammates. “You have to treat them like a faceless opponent. Forget that you know them personally and you’ll play better.”
Peterson explained that the team didn’t make any alterations to its game plan, but focused on exerting its strengths and exploiting Catholic Memorial’s vulnerabilities.
“We wanted to get the ball out wide because we noticed that their defense was a little clumped in the middle, especially by the breakdown. So if we did that, it’d be a big advantage for us,” Peterson said. “Once they realized we were moving the ball out wide, we were able to cut back in and that’s how we scored a couple of tries.”
Catholic Memorial had a good share of possession during the opening 15 minutes, and then DSHA flyhalf Jackie Jarosz sent a booming kick downfield to relocate play. Wing Sid Zaug scored shortly afterward, and Peterson pinpointed that try as a turning point.
Minutes later, DSHA was yellow-carded but managed to get back in scoring position while a player down. A desperate defensive effort saw a Crusader attempt an interception but draw a yellow card for the intentional knock-on. Jarosz lined up the penalty for the 10-0 lead after 20 minutes.
Three minutes later, prop Bella Huschitt hustled downfield to take a finishing pass over the try line and give DSHA a 15-0 lead into halftime.
Catholic Memorial responded early in the second half and sent No. 8 Haley Crow in for a try, 15-5.
“It was a back-and-forth game,” Peterson belied any sense of comfort. “Maggie Leffler came off with a broken finger, and one of our big ball runners, Mikinzie Youngblood, came off, too. I personally got really worried without two of our best players leading the team. Catholic Memorial did take over the game at one point, but then our reserves stepped up, and other players stepped up in different positions, and we were back in the game.”
Soraya Keiser scored a crucial try minutes later, halting some of that Crusader momentum: 20-5.
“Jackie Jarosz, our 10, is always impressing me, every game. I don’t get how she does it,” Peterson pointed out standout performances. “Number 20, Halle Quadracci, came on at wing, and just seeing her play – she’s not big and was running through girls. I was really proud of her and her game.”
The teams traded one more try apiece, 25-10, and then fullback Abby Kayser took the ball off the final play and kicked to touch.
“Oh my god, finally. We got the national title back,” Peterson recounted first thoughts after the final whistle. “But then I got very sad that I couldn’t play with two of my best friends – Maggie and Mikinzie. But I was so proud of the team. They were tears of joy.”
Fortunately for Peterson, she’ll have the opportunity to play with her two friends in Ireland with the Midwest Thunderbirds this summer, but otherwise, DSHA rugby is over for the season. And the NIT trophy is back in Milwaukee.