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Air Force Sticks to the Air, and Wins

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Air Force Sticks to the Air, and Wins

Sophie Harris photo, courtesy USA Rugby.

Last year’s women’s DI fall final was a study in frustration.

It wasn’t that observers like this writer wanted any one specific team to win or lose; we just wanted to see a good game. We didn’t. Errors and fumbles were the feature of a game where UConn, making the fewer of the errors, prevailed.

This year, the game looked at the beginning to be more of the same. But as the game wore on, the teams involved - once again Connecticut and the US Air Force Academy - started to play tidier, more entertaining rugby.

And the result was an enjoyable spectacle. UConn came on with the knowledge that power-running fullback Sara Rothery could gain big chunks of territory with her kicking and counter-attacking, and that a unified approach in the forwards led by the Battering Ram, prop Rachel Coxe, would force Air Force into mistakes.

But you’d really expect a military academy team to at least learn from its mistakes. It seemed the Zoomies did indeed do that.

UConn opened the scoring, punishing Air Force for errors and then sending Rothery through for a loping run. She was caught, but wing Alecia Alleyne was there to get Rothery’s pass and get over.

UConn came right back and Rothery booted over a penalty, and that made it 8-0, and set the tone for what looked to be the story of the day.

Except it wasn’t.

Air Force pulled themselves together. Flanker Leah McFarland, not the biggest lady on the field, but certainly the bravest, made it her job to fix it all. Players not running straight? McFarland would take the first channel she saw and accelerate ahead. Balls sliding out of the hands in the rain? McFarland was there to clean it up. UConn’s big runners threatening to intimidate? McFarland was there to tackle anyone.

It wasn’t just one player, of course. Tactics played a part. While the connection in midfield wasn’t working, and as a result wing Funmi Akinlosotu couldn’t get going, flyhalf Noelle Heiser whacked kicks to the corner for newbie wing Sarah Stinson to chase. The approach meant that even if no points came, Rothery was spending most of her time chasing those kicks and trying to kick out of danger.

Eventually that pressure from the kicks led to a series of pick-and-goes, and young flanker Ashlee Solato picked up, stayed low, and was over.

Jacqueline Hamby converted to make it 8-7.

And then, slowly, Air Force started to bring piece it together. Maria Carter picked up and went over in much the same way as Solato did, staying low to the ground. Then lock Simone Duryea did much the same. The kicks to the corner helped make those tries happen.

Overall, especially in the second half, Air Force was tactically smart, aggressive, and more tidy than UConn. That’s why they held on to win 19-8.

McFarland was a revelation.

“When the ball is dropped I think, hey, let’s just go forward,” McFarland told Goff Rugby Report. “Our support is good enough that we will do something with it, but my first through is to get it away from the problem. I pick it up and I’m gone.”

Down 8-0, Air Force could have let the self doubt creep in. McFarland said it was crucial not to let it.

“We said to each other, ‘guys, we can do this,’” she said. “They’re a strong team, but let’s not lose. We call it Air Force ball when we put it in the air, and we’re fast so we know we can chase it down, too.”

Stinson was an excellent chase and tackler, and helped make the kicking game work. Lock and captain Joycelyn Fordyce was once again brilliant - aggressive despite her lack of size, excellent in the lineout, and a leader. For UConn, Derek RoyDavis was their strongest runner in the center, and the front row of Coxe, Sofia Gonzales, and Shayna Kennedy put in a full day’s work.

But Air Force simply had more great performances from players working together. Scrumhalf Kelsi O’Brien was in the middle of it all.

“The conditions were terrible, but coming through the season we’ve always come at it with the idea that we’re going to have a lot of hustle in the scrum,” O’Brien said, alluding to the fact that UConn shoved the Air Force pack back repeatedly. “We have a smaller pack but they’re tenacious. Handling the ball and getting it out quick is a skill we really pride ourselves on.”

O’Brien was quick to get that ball away from trouble.

“We all run together really well as a unit, and we play in the snow a lot in Colorado, so we could handle the conditions,” said O’Brien, who is looking to become a pediatric surgeon after she graduates the academy. “We know to keep a cool, calm head and we knew we wanted this more. We rallied after being down, and playing in their half was our goal.” 

 

 

Air Force 19

Tries: Solato, Carter, Duryea

Convs: Hamby 2

 

UConn 8

Tries: Alleyne

Pens: Rothery