Of all the division one teams that competed at the American Collegiate Rugby Association championship, only Northern Iowa made its debut in a final four. The Midwest powerhouse proved their worth, pushing Norwich to a 40-32 semifinal loss and then finishing third after a 32-15 win over Navy.
“It’s awesome,” UNI captain Meghan Flanigan said of the championship. “It’s felt like a dream the whole weekend. Our alumni is so proud of us as well, and we play for them, because they’ve been in these jerseys. We hoped to continue the legacy, and we did. I’m really proud of the team.”
UNI’s opening try was first made possible by a long-range kick from flyhalf Angie McCardle to get into Navy territory, then a thundering No. 8 pick from Becca Brown saw the Panthers deep in the Midshipmen’s end. Wing Mariah Hinton fended her opposite on the sideline to get within striking distance, and flanker Crystal Nye was on her heels to keep the drive moving forward. Scrumhalf Dakota Jeppson picked from the base and dove over for the 5-0 lead. It was the first of two tries for the freshman, who had big shoes to fill at scrumhalf this year. The previous halfback was fifth-year senior Rebecca Brown (not to be confused with No. 8 Becca Brown), but the San Clemente, Calif., native played admirably.
Navy answered quickly. From UNI’s end, Flanigan kicked the ball from the ground and was rewarded in the chase as it bounced into her arms. Being unsupported, however, the ball skirted loose after the tackle, and Navy wing Sierra Snapp employed similar kicking measures to get away from her defense. Twice she angled her kicks toward the try zone, outracing her opposite and dotting down for the 5-5 tie.
But the majority of the remainder belonged to UNI. Navy was incredibly tough in the breakdown, most notably No. 8 Erika Pedersen, whose head could be seen driving through the middle of every ruck, but could not build any consistency. The Panthers however were fluid, especially between Nye, Brown, McCardle and Flanigan.
“We’ve been playing together for four years, and three years with our seven [Nye], so that helps,” Flanigan spoke to their connection. “We know where each other’s going to be that we don’t have to talk half of the time. That time together has really helped our continuity.”
At 13 minutes, Brown picked off the back of the scrum, hit Jeppson, who offloaded to Nye for the corner try. Five minutes later, Nye quick-tapped through a penalty and tore up-field, connecting wing Mariah Hinton out wide once the defense converged. Hinton fed Flanigan back inside and some pretty at-pace passing with Nye and Brown saw the eightman over the line, 15-5.
Most of the first half was played in Navy’s end. UNI mixed up its attack, adding in some tactical kicks – that missed the mark at times – to keep the defense guessing. The forwards did a good job of retaining their ball, and minute flanker Eileen Lieb was a hallmark of the Panthers’ rigidity in the breakdown. At one point, the tiny freshman blew off Navy center Katie Smith – who looks three times her size – as she tried to poach the ball on the sideline.
With halftime a stoppage away, UNI forewent the penalty kick to touch and instead sent the ball to McCardle, who sucked in flyhalf Juliann Hitt and inside center Sarah Peterson to the tackle. Brown came roaring around the tackle for the outlet pass and was stopped just short of the line by Smith. A phase later, Jeppson dove over for her second try, which McCardle converted, 22-5 into the break.
Flanigan kicked UNI into Navy’s 22 meter to start the second half, and despite multiple turnovers in the ruck, play stayed in Navy’s end. Finally, a long skip pass from Flanigan to Jessi Martin put the winger into space, and she booked it into the corner for the try, 27-5.
“That’s been our advantage all season,” Flanigan said of the mismatches on the wing. “We have two really great wings, Mariah and Jessi. We knew that if we could get it wide, they’d use their speed, so that was our plan.”
UNI continued to scramble the defense with their high-speed, tight passing, then swinging the ball outside for the back three to gain ground up the sideline. Martin finished off such a series to begin the fourth quarter and got her second try, 32-5.
The game was firmly in the Panthers’ hands, but Navy didn’t relent.
“They’re very tough,” Flanigan said. “I know Erika [Pedersen] from the All-Americans. She’s a great player, runs really fast and hard every time. None of them gave up, no matter what, and they kept bringing it to us. Hats off to them for giving us a good game.”
Pedersen was finally repaid for her remarkable work rate and scored two tries in the 72nd and 80th minutes for a more respectable 32-15 final.
“We wanted to go out with a win no matter what, so we accomplished that goal,” Flanigan said. “It [third place] is going to be great for recruitment, which obviously helps our team grow and get better. And to have this experience in the back of our heads, the knowledge that we have the potential to win nationals, that’ll just keep driving us.”
Northern Iowa 32
Tries: Jeppson 2, Martin 2, Nye, Brown
Tries: Pedersen 2, Snapp