Photo courtesy Virginia Women’s Rugby
UVA vs. North Carolina is the pinnacle of the DI Mason Dixon South, and the duo met for the first time this spring in Saturday’s conference-closer. The 52-17 scoreline suggests an overwhelming victory for UVA, but coach Nancy Kechner wasn’t so convinced.
“It was a strange game,” Kechner said. “We like to play a wide open, but the rucks were a mess and we never really got into our rhythm. We scored a lot of points, but they weren’t normal tries where you’re stringing phases together. We never really used our wings. It was more of a grinder game.”
UNC played to the referee and poached UVA’s ball at the tackle. The Tar Heels leaned on their size and physicality, sometimes offloading in contact but often trundling into the defense. The home side hurt itself on dropped balls and knock-ons, however, and UVA took those opportunities to score.
Flanker Elizabeth Anderson was particularly crucial in cleaning up possession. The former ballroom dancer is the fastest player on the team, and when the ball hits the ground, she’s on top of it. Anderson connects well with fellow loose forwards Debbie Ledezma and Luma Abunimer. Ledezma is a former center who moved to the forwards after rehabbing a knee injury. She was a steadying force throughout a chaotic game and can really move with ball in hand. When the trio work together, they were able to produce the tries that UVA prefers to score.
But one of the best additions to the pack has been Hannah Turley. The Hong Kong native began her UVA career at wing and has now moved to lock.
“She talks and essentially narrates the entire game from the forwards,” Kechner said. “She gets everyone else talking and puts the forwards in sync. She loves it. She’s always around the ball and has a tremendous rugby IQ. She’s not incredibly physical but she has crazy footwork and will dance around you.”
Turley scored an unexpected try off a restart, keeping her feet moving to keep the ball alive. Tighthead prop Christy Haney opened up the scoring with a breakaway run and fended her way past seven defenders. Scrumhalf Kaleigh Brown added another try from a quick-tap penalty, sliding past an unprepared defense.
“It was a series of odd things,” Kechner reflected on the full slate of tries. “But some players really stepped up and played with a lot of heart. And it gives you confidence that you can win a game like this, which is helpful going into playoffs.”
The backs didn’t receive as much possession as desired, but they do run a potent offense. Flyhalf Frankie Beller sees the holes and has an excellent pass to lead her teammates into them. The center pairing of Summer Harris-Jones and Zoe Schmitt is very good. They break the line and tackle hard. And wing Joy Jefferson, when she’s healthy, is a near-guaranteed scorer. Throw in fullback Cary Wingo, a rangy soccer player with a great boot, and that’s recipe for an exciting offense.
The team is hoping to play its game this weekend at the Mason Dixon conference playoffs, which are different this year. Prior to naming the final four (top two from the North and South pools), the number three teams were allowed to challenge the opposing pool for a semifinal berth. Temple challenged UVA, which won 79-0. And Virginia Tech expressed its desire to challenge Pittsburgh. The latter failed to actually coordinate the challenge match, so the Virginia Tech vs. Pittsburgh play-in will be contested Saturday prior to the final four. It looks like this:
Saturday, April 2
Challenge Match: Virginia Tech (South #3) vs. Pittsburgh (North #2)
Semifinal #1: James Madison (North #1) vs. North Carolina (South #2)
Semifinal #2: UVA (South #1) vs. winner of Virginia Tech vs. Pittsburgh
The championship match will be held Sunday and determine seeds to the DI Round of 8, the eastern portion of which will occur in Marietta, Ga., on April 9-10. The Mason Dixon and Florida conferences will supply the four teams, although the number of berths for each league has not been announced. It is possible, however, that Mason Dixon will receive three seeds and Florida one (in which case, Central Florida will be heading to Marietta).