There were several unique aspects to Winona’s ACRA 7s-winning weekend. The Minnesota team was capping its first 7s-only spring season, and the Black Katts represented the only squad outside of the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic regions. Most impressive was Winona’s 20-0 record through the ACRA 7s championship, which culminated in a thrilling one-point victory over Bloomsburg in the final.
Much like 15s, Winona faced little resistance in the build-up to the invitational. The lopsided scores weren’t enough to establish confidence, as the team couldn’t assess what was truly working or needed improvement.
“We keep running into this theme, in 15s and now 7s,” Winona coach Josh Krzewinski lamented. “Each week at practice and each game we set goals and work on specific skills. We often talk about ‘controlling the controllable.’”
Last weekend’s competition at West Point, N.Y., was a notch above what the Black Katts had seen all year, and the coach was pleased to see the team answer with quality wins. During pool play, Winona bested Rutgers 56-0, Kutztown 31-7 and Stony Brook 42-7. The team followed with a 27-0 win over host Army 2 in the quarterfinals, and then faced a much-improved Rutgers in the semifinals. The New Jersey team put up an excellent fight in the 19-5 decision.
Meanwhile, Bloomsburg was having an equally strong tournament, defeating Univ. New Hampshire 34-5, Army 2 17-5 and Marist 27-0 in pool play. The Pennsylvania team then eliminated East Stroudsburg 17-0 in the quarterfinals and Drexel 37-0 in the semis.
Bloomsburg and Winona have never played each other, but there is some familiarity. Both teams advanced to last fall’s ACRA 15s final four and watched each other compete.
“The final was one of the most intense and stressful matches I’ve been a part of,” indicated Krzewinski, who was eager to review film of the championship. “I felt like we controlled the match overall, but it wasn’t the high-scoring results we were used to. Our offense was moving the ball across the field well and exploiting gaps, and our defense stepped up big as we disrupted any sort of offensive pattern Bloomsburg put together. They were much bigger than us, and we knew had to step up our tackling, as well as being a bit stronger in the breakdowns to attempt to slow down their attack and not allow clean recycled ball.”
Bloomsburg played a more vertical game, leaning on its power to break tackles and collapse the defense before moving it wide to finisher Nikki Snyder. The flyer was unstoppable all weekend, the final included. She accounted for all four of Bloomsburg’s tries, each of which came from 30-plus-meter runs. Jade Hensinger added three conversions for 26 points.
In most 7s games, that would be enough for a victory, and it nearly was. Winona took a 17-7 lead into the break and was able to stay ahead on the scoreboard while Bloomsburg played catch-up. Team captain and eventual MVP Lanoira Duhart was instrumental in creating more opportunities for her side. Along with center Megan Wolff, Duhart drew multiple defenders when she had ball in hand and poached possession on the ground. Offensively, seniors Sam Wilcox and Nadia Nassif were influential in the fluidity of the game. They were quick to the ruck and cleared out efficiently.
“Bloomsburg had great tacklers, so we knew we wouldn’t have the big breaks from missed tackles,” Krzewinski noted. “All spring we worked on quick recycled ball from the breakdown and at practice we challenge the girls on how quickly they could recycle the ball from the moment the tackled player goes to ground. This was something we thought would create more space by moving the ball away quickly and spreading out their defense. Our girls run in support of each other extremely well, and that provided a lot of offload opportunities, which we were able to either score on or gain several meters, making Bloomsburg scramble to get back on defensive and cover.”
Scrumhalves Nicki Linberg and Kalene Hill were also important in slowing down Bloomsburg’s attack, pestering the scrums and disrupting the clean outlet to the backs. That same work ethic applied to the offense, and freshman Cassie Schultz and junior Lachen Esters worked hard to support and be in the right position for the finishing pass.
In the end, it was Winona’s defense that produced the 27-26 win and ACRA title. Bloomsburg had momentum in the second stanza, outscoring the Black Katts three tries to two, but Winona held on long enough for the one-point win.
It was a final for which every tournament hopes, and the competition was good enough to lure Winona’s interest in the future, if not to simply defend its first-ever 7s title.
ACRA 7s Invitational Championship
QF: Winona 27-0 Army 2
QF: Rutgers 17-7 Vassar
QF: Bloomsburg 17-0 East Stroudsburg
QF: Drexel def Marist
SF: Bloomsburg 37-0 Drexel
SF: Winona 19-5 Rutgers
Final: Winona 27-26 Bloomsburg