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Big 10 Sends 2 to DI Semis

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Big 10 Sends 2 to DI Semis

The Big Ten decided to join the USA Rugby Women’s DI Fall Championship, hosted by ACRA, rather than the spring playoffs, this year, and the conference has made its presence known. Two teams – Penn State and Indiana – have advanced to the semifinals on Dec. 6-7 in Palm Coast, Fla., although the pair’s paths to the Final Four contrast greatly with each other.

Penn State won its weekend’s games easily – 100-0 vs. Kent State on Saturday, and 88-0 vs. Lindenwood on Sunday. Against the MAC champion, PSU built a 57-0 first-half lead, and saw freshman Tess Feury and Rachael Ngandwe bank hat tricks. Cassie Stockhausen, Katrina Bodenschatz, captain Elizabeth Cairns and Beth Rose scored a brace of tries apiece, while the main conversion kicker, Corinne Heavner, added a five-pointer as well.

On the other side of the bracket, Lindenwood survived a tough Ohio State 27-22 in the Round of 16, and entered Sunday a bit more tender than the reigning DI champ. It didn’t help matters that Eagle prop Hope Rogers had returned as a regular fixture on the pitch, and the World Cup vet plodded through the snow for a team-leading four tries. Only flyhalf Gabby Cantorna outscored Rogers, dotting down three tries and slotting five conversions for 25 points. Feury and Ngandwe added another two tries to their weekend tallies; Lauren Shissler and Rachel Ehrecke added a try each; and Heavner converted four extras.

Penn State has won nine DI championships, but a 2-0 victory in Florida will not yield a 10th title. The victor of the fall championship will advance to the May 9 match against the spring championship victor.

Indiana has never made it past the Round of 16, so Saturday’s 34-0 win against Iowa State was momentous in and of itself.

“It was pretty one-sided; they didn’t play inside our 22,” Indiana coach Vaughn Mitchell said. “Our defense was working well – but so was theirs. They were very aggressive on defense – coming up hard – and we had to work for our tries. It was not an easy win; they just didn’t have much on offense.”

Iowa State had a couple of hard runners, but when its fullback came out of the game, the offense as a whole suffered.

The Redstorm relied on its forward pressure – led by prop Karen Strunk – to overwhelm Iowa State’s defense, build an overload out wide, and then put speedsters like wing Bridget Tasker and inside center Masie Duncan into space. Both scored tries, as did flanker Jordyn Doyle, wing Missy Mattson (2) and sub Alli Hale.

With the exception of flyhalf Mariana Mesa’s between-game rehab, Indiana was injury-free heading into Sunday’s quarterfinals, but opponent Northern Iowa was recouping from a physical 7-0 win over Air Force Saturday. However, the most influential contributor was the weather. In addition to 2-3 inches of snow inside the 22s, the wind chill was -4 degrees at kickoff.

“That was the coldest game I’ve ever coached, saw or been around,” Mitchell still seemed to shiver. “The game was played between the 22s. We would build good phase play and then inevitably knock it on, or some other error. That’s what happens when the players can’t feel their hands.”

It also meant that both sides couldn’t play the expansive game they preferred. Indiana compensated with Mesa’s kicking game, which worked well in keeping the Panthers out of its red zone, but not in generating scoring opportunities. Eighty minutes passed, as UNI missed three attempts at goal and Indiana one. It soon became clear: Whichever side’s fitness flagged first would fall short.

“You could see it in their eyes,” Mitchell said of overtime. “You get hit on that cold, hard ground, and you take a second – you don’t want to get back up. You start wondering, ‘When is this game going to end?!’

“They surprised me, playing in those conditions for 100 minutes,” Mitchell added. “I didn’t make any subs in the backline, and four of the forwards played the entire game.”

But Mitchell did make some subs, unlike UNI, and the host’s defense started to bend a bit deeper during overtime. At the very end of the period, substitute lock and former captain Regina Uribe – who hadn’t played since the second pre-season game due to injury – scored the game-winner, and Mesa slotted the extras for the 7-0 win.

“I’m thankful for that game,” Mitchell said. “If you can make it through that as a team, then you really grow from experiences like that.”

Indiana advances to the fall semifinals to face reigning ACRA champ Norwich, a team with which the Redstorm knows mostly through 7s.

“They put a lot of points on the board, and they don’t lose games,” Mitchell recalled 7s nationals. “They’re fit, fast, great offload-ers, and are very disciplined coming from a military academy.

“We’ll be working on defense,” said Mitchell of the next three weeks’ preparation. “It’s all about spacing out the field. From playing them, we know they like to use the width.”

But Mitchell is going to wait for the team’s frostbite to heal before ramping up practice again. The next time both Indiana and Penn State hit the pitch, it’ll be in 70-degree weather, and a trip to the title bout will be on the line.

For the full DI brackets, click here.