UCONN is the longtime power in the DI Northeast conference, and so a victory against the Huskies is something worth noting. Northeastern had a good year in 2018, finishing second to UCONN in league and advancing to the DI fall quarterfinals, but was a little weary about this fall after a big graduating class. Each week, those fears dissipated and last Saturday, Northeastern beat UCONN 24-22.
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“We graduated 14 seniors, so last year’s players were nervous coming into this season,” Northeastern coach Keith Cattanach said of early season anxiety. “I do feel like we haven’t lost our step from last year. We’re still the same strong team, just with new players. It’s great to see these players filling big shoes from last year.”
Loosehead prop Grace Arevalo is the on-field captain, and flyhalf Nicole Wynne, who is sidelined for the season, is also a captain but funneling expertise into the education of the new players. Senior Alessia Pellegrini slid from center to 10 and has flourished in the decision-making position. Pellegrini and fellow halfback Anya Hsu have been key in driving the 1331 offense, which puts strong ballcarriers like Arevalo, fellow sophomore Tori Merchantz and junior Tara Levine into effectual striking positions for meters forward.
The year started with a 62-35 win over Boston College, followed by a 24-22 win over UMASS.
“In our opening match, it was, ‘Oh, wow, we can play,’” Cattanach said. “And then against UMASS, it was, ‘Uh oh, what are we doing?’ But we bounced back. The [29-7] win against [Boston University] was a big one. We usually get a strong game from them, but they have a new coach, who has a good head on their shoulders, but they’re in a transition period a little bit. That game was a good motivator.”
The Maddogs beat Rhode Island 51-12 and then readied for UCONN, which was also 4-0.
“I treated UCONN as a regular-season match. I didn’t emphasize that we haven’t beaten them; we focused on us and everything was positive,” Cattanach said of pre-game mentality. “Maybe they were a little quieter at first during warm-ups, but once they got through the first few hits and the tackling went well, it was, ‘We can contend. UCONN is strong but they’re not better than us.’”
Regular scrumhalf Hsu had sustained an injury prior to the match and so center Maya Raghavan stepped into the crucial role for the first time ever. It was quite the ask, and Cattanach praised Raghavan’s poise and execution throughout the match.
But the Huskies went up by three tries in the first 20 minutes, as Kelsey Fisher, Amy Jones and Gianna Wood all crossed for tries. Levine punched one in at the 25th minute but then UCONN ended the half with another Jones try and Allison Gorman conversion: 22-5 to the Huskies.
“We weren’t looking up-field,” Cattanach reflected on first-half shortcomings. “It was a good back-and-forth with possession, and they earned their breaks. Defense was shutting down the attack in the middle of the field, especially their punches off the fringe.
“We didn’t make any drastic changes or subs at half,” the coach continued. “We basically executed our plan and looked at the field more. We hadn’t been attacking gaps that well in the first half, but we did in the second half and that drew in the defense and allowed us to find space out wide.”
Right after the break, inside center Caroline Swenson scored (22-10) and then captain Arevalo dotted down at minute 64. Hooker Grace Pattarini kicked the conversion for the 22-17 scoreline. Minutes later Swenson crossed for a second try and Pattarini’s extras gave Northeastern the 24-22 edge. But there were still 12 minutes to play.
“We still had to play our game but as we got closer to the end, the messaging was: Keep possession,” Cattanach said. “UCONN wasn’t going to let up so we had to keep playing our game. We didn’t want to sub out anyone because everyone was connecting so well.”
The team did hold on and banked its first win against UCONN in a long time.
“They were going nuts,” Cattanach said of the final-whistle reaction. “This is a big win overall because no one had beaten UCONN in a regular-season match in years. Being on our home pitch, and with lots of alumnae from last year there, everyone was overjoyed. It was a good, strong finish because we basically came into season with 14 seniors graduated, and to finish 5-0 and beating UCONN was icing on the cake.
“It wasn’t one person who made a difference; it was every player who stepped up in a team win,” the coach thought on leading performances. “[Arevalo] had a phenomenal day; they could not stop her too well. Flanker Maddie Klein, a really strong hitter, stopped a couple of runs. [Swenson] had another great game and was running on the ball and gaining the line and getting lots of space every time she got the ball. We brought a freshman [Hannah Wilker] in at second half, a strong center, who got her feet moving and was hitting the break-line offensively as well.”
The DI Northeast will now contest its playoffs. This weekend, Northeastern will host #4 UMASS, an opponent that the Maddogs are eager to see again. And UCONN will host #3 Boston University. The two victors will then play the following weekend, and the champion will advance to the DI fall quarterfinals, while the second-place team will advance to the wild card round on Nov. 16.