It has been quite the journey for Winona. The Minnesotans have been back-to-back-to-back DII finalists (the first two with USA Rugby), only to fall one game short of perfection – until yesterday. Winona defeated Notre Dame College 28-14 in the American Collegiate Rugby Association DII final.
All odds favored Winona, but Notre Dame, a first-year program, didn’t heed those prejudices. Young but very athletic, Notre Dame College weathered a first quarter inside their 22 meter, repeatedly repelling Winona from crossing their try line, while the favorites racked up the penalties.
At 15:30, some good midfield work sucked in enough defense to give outside center Hannah Gauthreaux a little room to the sideline. She took the corner, pushed out of contact and turned it on for 60 meters. Wing Christina Schmidt – who replaced concussed wing Brittany Kapsalis and brought a great boot to the Falcons’ arsenal – converted for the 7-0 lead.
“Yeah, there were some nerves, at least from me,” Winona scrumhalf Georgia Porter said after the score. “We were down in the try zone just saying that we had to have faith in each other and keeping playing as a team, not individuals. We knew that their outside center and No. 8 were good players, and we tried to focus on not clumping on defense and taking players on, because we knew we could be beat on the outside.”
Winona got a boost when wing Lyndsey Bucki darted down the sideline, swallowed up by Gauthreaux about 10 meters out. Inside center Holly Edelburg was on her heels, picked from the base and barreled into the try zone, 7-5.
Winona was still a little soft on defense. The fringe wasn’t busting off the line and the tackles were high, allowing Notre Dame’s tough forwards – Hannah Long, Maddie Goodwin, Rebecca Swainson, Lucinda Davell, Keke O'Neal and flyhalf Lea Walsh – to fight through contact.
With about five minutes left on the clock, the Falcons turned over a ruck on Winona's 22 meter and then earned a penalty. Well in range for points, the team ignored the sideline’s pleas and instead put the ball in Long’s hands. It was the right choice, as the eightman blew through the line for the try, and Schmidt converted, 14-5.
The turning point followed. With little time left on the clock, Winona could have just played for the halftime break and regrouped with the help of coaches. Instead, the Black Katts got into Notre Dame’s half, spun the ball from sideline to sideline, cycling it through everyone’s hands. After some nice forward punches in the middle of the field, center Caitlin Courtney bounced off a tackle and hit Bucki for a drive to the line. Replacement hooker Sydney Norman picked from the base and dove over for the try, 14-10.
“We had 10 minutes at halftime, and we said we had to secure the ball and do what we knew worked for us,” Porter said. “[In the first half] we tried to play their game and tried to offload it and pop it up, but that’s not how we play. We had to bring the ball down, ruck it and secure it.”
Cleaning up those breakdowns was the key to Winona’s success, as the majority of the second 40 was spent in Notre Dame’s end. The score might have been higher if penalties didn’t slow the Black Katts’ go-forward, but the points still came.
Lock Holly Zimmer closed the gap to one when, after some good ball movement, Gauthreaux attempted to pick off a pass to Courtney and instead drew the penalty in front of posts, 14-13.
The Falcons kept trying to steal the ball in contact rather than taking big runners like Rachel Hunter, Kourtney Kavajzecz and Zimmer to the ground immediately and forcing quick support in the ruck. That allowed Winona to suck in more defenders around the breakdown and give deft piercers like tournament MVP Holly Vassar and Nadia Nassif room to strike.
Notre Dame was poised for a scrum near their 10 meter, but Winona drove over the ball and marched to the line for Porter to dive over, 18-14. At the 62-minute mark, Winona reiterated that the forwards worked better as a unit, driving in a beautiful lineout maul for Vassar to dot down, 23-14.
Notre Dame came to Florida with only 20 players and had lost an important player to injury on Saturday. While the Falcons were fit and determined, they couldn’t withstand the long defensive campaigns as Winona cycled in some fresh legs. Winona sent a Notre Dame scrum on wheels and continually swallowed up Gauthreaux as she tried to pull her team out of danger.
Courtney smothered the former track star in the try zone, setting up a five-meter scrum to Winona. Porter sent the ball weakside and wing Nikki Lindberg finished off the game with a corner try, 28-14.
“It was our time to win it,” Porter said after her third consecutive trip to the DII final. “As a freshman, it was new and exciting, and I was just happy to be at nationals. But now as a junior, as an upperclassman, I wanted first place; it wasn’t enough to just be here. We all wanted it."