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'Bama Bounds Into DII Nationals

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'Bama Bounds Into DII Nationals

Alabama (seen here against Kennesaw State in the regular season) won the SIRC title after two tough games.

Alabama’s season has been filled with close games and the DII South Independent conference playoffs were no different. The Crimson Tide entered the post-season atop the South division, boasting a 4-0 record, but all of the games' point differentials were in the single digits. The close competition engendered a well prepared Alabama, and the Tide displayed as much en route to the conference title.

The playoffs began against the University of Georgia. The former DI team dropped down to DII this year and took the North #2 seed after defeating Lee University 38-17 the weekend prior.

UGA controlled the opening quarter, but Alabama was steady in its defense and the offense found its voice 17 minutes in. No. 8 Chelsi Thompson picked from the base of a ruck and tore down the weak side for a long-range try. UGA answered the five points five minutes later.

“The first half saw a fast-paced, fluid attack with the ref playing long advantage so that offenses could spread their legs and run,” Alabama coach Meredith Bagley reported.

Three minutes before halftime, Alabama co-captain and prop Caitlin Robinson - whom Bagley described as an “absolute go-to leader and clutch player” – converted a series of short phases into a try, 10-5 into the break. It could have easily been tied at 10 if fullback Kourtney Davis hadn’t made a textbook, open-field tackle to end a breakaway from Georgia’s flyhalf. That tackle proved crucial in the end.

“UGA clearly got the motivational talk of the weekend, using a knock-on in the opening kickoff to score a minute into the second half with a strong back line move off a scrum at the 22 meter,” Bagley recalled. “This knotted the score, and teams traded exciting chances and thrilling defense for the remainder of the match.”

With 10 minutes remaining, Georgia had a good opportunity to score again, but a fortunate penalty allowed Alabama’s flyhalf to dot down the winning try at minute 79, 15-10 to Alabama.

“We are a slightly smaller team than most, so the size of UGA was a slight concern,” Bagley confessed. “Their flankers and inside backs were very strong, so we worked on not letting them get up to speed. Their try in the second half was a case of getting 'downhill running' thrown at us on our goal line, and it was just too much to stop.”

Meanwhile, Emory defeated UT Chattanooga 32-15 in the other semifinal, setting up an all-South division title match. When the pair played in the regular season, Alabama prevailed 19-10.

Twelve minutes in, outside center Savannah Harper slipped through the defense and sped 45 meters for the opening try, which Robinson converted. About 12 minutes later, Thompson powered over the Emory goal-line defense for her second score of the weekend, 12-0 into the break.

Play was balanced with perhaps a slight edge to Alabama, though Emory's aggressive rucking led to turnovers in rucks, and chances off of those moments were denied by the Tide defense,” Bagley indicated. “The second half opened in Alabama’s favor with an early score off a weakside wing-prop combination when Robinson notched her second try of the weekend, and a lucky bounce on the conversion gave us a comfortable 19-0 lead.”

But a red card gave Emory a player advantage for the final 15 minutes, and an overload situation allowed an Emory try with 10 minutes remaining, 19-5.

“Team fitness and roster depth helped us for sure,” Bagley considered the team’s attributes. “We can pretty much run well 1 through 15, and we brought 25 active players to the weekend. This allowed us to rotate front row players and keep fresh legs on the field.

“I thought our team defense was excellent, perhaps our best effort all year,” Bagley added. “Tackles were sound, we defended the hinge well, pressured up on penalties, and forced offenses sideways all weekend. We also played exceptionally clean. We might have been whistled for 8-10 penalties across the two games – very nice clean play on both sides of the ball.”

What lies ahead for Alabama? No news yet as to where the Crimson Tide is playing its Round of 16 game, but the team has a good shot at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. The bigger question will be whether the SIRC gets a second seed and to whom it will go. Georgia appeared to be the tougher opponent, but Emory finished second in the conference.