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Tulane, the DII Spring Champ

  • 25 Apr 2016

Leifer’s intercept try /// Photo: Jackie Finlan


It has been a storybook season for Tulane. After a decade-long hiatus, the Louisiana side rejoined competitive play this year and went undefeated in league, advanced to the SIRC championship, won the South regional, and after today, took the DII spring championship. There’s one more chapter in this brilliant saga: contesting a DII national championship against Davenport in two weeks.


“After our fall friendly season, we started thinking about goals for the spring season and were just throwing around some ideas,” Tulane captain Maddie Brenner reflected. “Someone laughed, ‘ Why don’t we make our goal to win the national title?” But it was a new season and we didn’t want to set our goals too high, so we decided to focus on winning the matrix season.”


But the athletic, fast and stouthearted squad turned out to be the best team in the South and earned the right to compete for the spring trophy in Davis, Calif., this weekend. In Saturday’s semifinal (which is the equivalent of a national quarterfinal), Tulane rallied from a two-try deficit to tie it up 31-all at the end of regulation, necessitating overtime. Knowing the importance of that first extra-time try, Tulane flew into action and ended up scoring four tries to win 53-31.


“We knew Salisbury was going to be a hard team to beat,” Brenner said. “Tying it up, going into overtime and scoring a couple of tries right off the bat, our morale was really high heading into today. That was a really tough 100 minutes, but it brought the team together and gave us so much confidence, because that was our toughest opponent until Humboldt.”


Tulane watched about 10 minutes of the Humboldt vs. USC semifinal (40-15 win to Humboldt) and noted the Californians’ size and power.


“We knew they were going to ruck really hard, so on defense, we were going to leave the ball if they had already won it, and make sure we spread out of defense,” Brenner said. “We were also going to try to do partner tackles because we knew their big girls were going to be hard to bring down.”


Those strategies proved fruitful. On straight hands, Humboldt couldn’t take the corner and was pushed into touch on several occasions. Players like Libby Berg, Taylor Pallesen and Rattnak Sokhom were able to drive back the fringe defense, but there were always well prepared defenders and swarming support to help slow that build and the offloads. The only player that Tulane couldn’t subdue was outside center Lila Bell, who scored one try and whose breakaways set up others. Fortunately, the speed of players like scrumhalf Brittany Dykes and Erica Maker prevented more pullaway scores.


Early on, Humboldt spent energy on holding up ballcarriers and driving them toward touch when defending in its 22, but Tulane was able to stand up the opposition. From a penalty, Tulane sent a few forward phases to the line and then spun the ball wide to speedy outside center Gwen Leifer for the try, 5-0 after five minutes.


On the next possession, Humboldt player-coach Meredith Conrad-Forrest finished off some good forward phases and penalty opportunities with a try out wide. Conrad-Forrest had moved from flanker to inside center, as regular flyhalf Kiana Hargreaves – who was essentially one-handed – move to the loose forwards, with Jordan Ludtke taking over flyhalf. Conrad-Forrest’s work on defense, her ability to work the opposition and put players into space, as well as find a seam around the breakdown were impressive as always.


Tulane No. 8 Lily Wissinger had a good day with ball in hand as well, and she helped Tulane into good field position for the team’s second try. From a tap penalty, inside center Brenner barreled her way across the line for the 10-5 lead. Minutes later, an aggressive defense led by flyhalf Hannah Hoover got in Humboldt’s passing lanes, and Leifer cherry-picked a pass for a 50-meter try. Flanker Tristan Peronard added the extras for the 17-5 lead after 20 minutes.


Tulane had a better scrum than Humboldt, and it played a major role in disrupting the Lumberjacks’ attacking platform. Berg was often forced to pick from the base early as the set piece retreated, and scrumhalf Jasmine Phiengsai had trouble digging the ball out.


“When we first started out in our matrix season, our scrums weren’t necessarily something that we could use as a weapon,” Brenner said. “We did a lot of technical scrum work in front of the post-season and now we’ve really been able to use that.”


This pressure helped set up Tulane’s fourth try, as an errant clearance kick worked quickly to Maker, who scored out wide.


Humboldt regained some ground in injury time, as Dykes chased down what should have been a Bell breakaway try. Conrad-Forrest picked from the ruck, broke weak and palmed-off her opposite for the score, 24-10.


“We were very proud of the way we played in the first half but we knew they were going to come back in the second half,” Brenner said. “They’re an excellent team, and we knew it wasn’t enough to carry us into victory.”


Tulane prop Alexandra Clarke – a mobile, fast front row who was very comfortable in open space – sent a nice kick on the run into Humboldt’s end. From the lineout, Conrad-Forrest switched with Bell, who was pulled down at the line. She drew a penalty, and after a couple of forward crashes, the ball moved to wing Tiana Barron for the corner score. Bell’s conversion made it 24-17.


Peronard added a penalty to make it a two-score game, but then back-to-back tries from Bell and Barron tied it up 27-27 with 15 minutes to go.


With five minutes to go, Tulane drew a penalty in Humboldt’s end, and Dykes sent a good, long kick to touch for the lineout. The ball worked wide, and although Bell put in a try-saving cover tackle, the recycle was quick and Leifer got into the corner. Peronard converted from the sideline for the 34-27 lead.


The death knell in minute 76, as Tulane’s scrum drove Humboldt backward from its own 10 meter. Phiengsai bobbled the ball and Ludtke scrambled to keep possession. A turnover ensued, and Tulane battered the line. Eventually, flanker Emma Peterson pumped her legs and dragged defenders across the try line, 39-27. Humboldt did score a final try with less than one minute to go through Barron, her third, but the final series of play ended in Humboldt being pushed into touch, 39-32.


“When Humboldt started coming back, I was talking with the team and making sure we weren’t getting frustrated with each other,” Brenner said. “We’ve done well with that this season, taking responsibility for our own mistakes but then not holding onto them. We knew we had the power to carry it through. We just had to slow things down, get a level head and play our game.”


And with that, Tulane is the DII college spring champion in its first competitive season in 10 years. As Brenner reflected on her team’s accomplishments, there was an iota of concern regarding the national championship, which occurs on May 7 in Moraga, Calif. The captain referenced finals, fundraising and the need for a team discussions, but also expressed the desire for another challenge against Davenport.


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