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Kutztown, DII's Heart-Breaker

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Kutztown, DII's Heart-Breaker

One thing was certain as Kutztown and Vassar lined up for their quarterfinal on Sunday: One of last year’s Final Four teams wasn’t returning to Florida this December. And through 80 minutes of play, it appeared that Kutztown was the team to be left behind, as Vassar established and retained a lead throughout the game. But just when it mattered most – one final play, no time on the clock – Kutztown won the composure game and 22-20 win.

Kutztown’s battle started on Saturday, however. Having crushed its Mid-Atlantic opponents during league, the Pennsylvania team was a bit stunned when Round of 16 opponent Stonehill College scored in the third minute, and sixth minute. Fantastic open-field play saw junior wing Victoria Wallace and senior flanker Sarah Buonopane dot down for a 10-0 lead.

“As usual, Faith Hughes pulled the team together and worked out the defensive issues,” Kutztown coach Sean Cobb said of the captain. “Faith then poured it on with ball in hand and scored three tries by game’s end, earning Woman of the Match.”

The rally put Kutztown up 19-10 at half.

“We played well with the exception of eight minutes in the first half,” Stonehill coach Derek Jenesky told HillRecSports.com. “We were down, but I was very confident we would be able to come back.”

The Skyhawks pressured early in the second half, but then Kutztown went on another scoring spree. In fewer than 10 minutes, three more tries (two from Hughes) pushed the score out to 38-10, and by the end of regulation, flanker Kristin Schmitz, wing Payton McCord, flyhalf Mary Cate Matta and reserve prop Amanda Kingdorf all scored.

“While Faith was the catalyst on the offensive side of the ball, outside center Tabetha Super was leading the way on the defensive side of the ball,” Cobb said. “Stonehill wanted to go wide and force us into a track meet, but Super was able to hold the edge and force play back inside. Her push/cover defense allowed us to hold the gainline and reorganize quickly. Tackle after tackle, Super held the edge and brought the game back in our favor.”

Stonehill wasn’t completely silenced, however, and the ever-looping JeiLi Merrill scored in the 61st and 73rd minutes in the 43-20 loss.

“Stonehill was a good team – well coached with a lot of good athletes – and they gave us all we could handle,” Cobb said. “Again we just went back to our system and trusted that all of our training would pay off in the end.”

Meanwhile, Vassar was busy eliminating Vermont in a 41-12 Round of 16 win. Nathalie Freeman, Darienne Jones and Meg Slattery scored two tries apiece, while Tamasha Persaud also dotted down in the quarterfinal berth.

The game of the weekend – between DI and DII playoffs alike – awaited.

“Playing at home with a trip to the Final Four on the line, Vassar came to play,” Cobb said. “Their forwards stood toe to toe with our forwards and never backed down. The backs – especially their #12 [Cierra Thomas] ran hard all day and made meters whenever they struck the gainline.”

The teams traded tries between Slattery and Kutztown flanker Kristin Schmitz (5-5) before Vassar put Freeman and Slattery’s second on the board for a 15-5 lead. The Golden Bears consolidated its efforts in the forwards, sending pick-and-goes downfield, and flanker Jess Tolton finally dove over to pull within five, 15-10, into the break.

In the second half, Vassar fullback Laila Blumenthal-Rothchild returned a poor clearance kick and got around the defense for a corner try, restoring the Brewers’ 10-point lead, 20-10.

Tackling has hampered Vassar during some important games this season, and as the fourth quarter wore on, Kutztown began breaking the line with more regularity. Matta took advantage and converted her own try, 20-17.

Time was winding down. Vassar needed calm, assertive defense; Kutztown needed to keep the ball in play and march downfield. Kutztown kept its side of the bargain, but Vassar drowned in the penalty waterfall.

“The defending Vassar players were attracted to the ball in the ruck much like bees to pollen, and more penalties were committed,” Vassar coach Tony Brown wrote on VassarAthletics.com. “It allowed Kutztown to keep the ball and make yards.”

With time expired, eventual Woman of the Match Matta dotted down the go-ahead, game-ending try, 20-17.

“This match was intense,” Cobb said. “I have never seen a team play that physically with us. Our forwards can normally control a game, and Vassar was not going to allow that. They competed at every breakdown and made it really hard for us to work our system. I tip my hat to Vassar and their coaching staff. In the end it just came down to four minutes of very intense, extra-time rugby. My girls refused to lose this game, and they pulled together for one last push that ended with a try and another trip to the Final Four.”

Shock, among many other emotions, overwhelmed the Vassar players once the whistle blew.

"In the immediate aftermath emotions were, and no doubt still are, raw," Brown wrote. "There are lessons to be taken from this game, as there are with all others, and in time that discussion will take place. But for now the team should be proud of the effort they put in as there was a plethora of tackling and bags of commitment, not to mention some good rugby played."

The next time Kutztown takes the pitch, it’ll be in 70 degree weather opposite the DII favorite, Notre Dame College.

For all of the DII results, click here.