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DI Fall Final: A 1993 Rematch

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DI Fall Final: A 1993 Rematch

Air Force won four DI national championships between 1991-2003. (Photo courtesy Air Force Women's Rugby)

When the U.S. Air Force Academy and University of Connecticut contest the fall championship on Sunday, Dec. 6, it won’t be the first time that these women’s DI colleges have battled toward a title. The pair played in the 1993 national championship, and UConn, making its second consecutive appearance that year, took home the trophy. Air Force might have experienced defeat in that match 22 years ago, but the Colorado Springs team won four national titles between 1991-2003.

A lot has changed since then. After Air Force’s last title run, the Penn State vs. Stanford rivalry began. The aforementioned contested eight of 11 DI national championships from 2004-2014. In addition to producing great athletes and exciting games, those programs highlighted how university support, invested coaches, and active alumni can elevate a club. The more recent surge in varsity teams and well financed programs meant teams like Air Force and UConn would, generally, struggle to progress deep into the national playoffs.

With the creation of the varsity and DI Elite championships this season, the DI competition has become, essentially, a DI club championship. Teams like Air Force and UConn have dedicated players and coaches, and a prideful alumni, but are lacking the resources that would help them stay in step with the growing elite. The DI fall, spring, and national championships are venues for these teams.

UConn heads to South Carolina without a single defeat this fall. The Huskies won the Northeast conference with a 49-3 win over Boston College, and then eased pass Kent State 61-5 in the DI fall quarterfinals. Last Sunday, UConn faced Ivy League’s Princeton, which advanced after a 49-18 win over Notre Dame Saturday.

A thriller of an East Regional semifinal evolved in Pittsburgh. A strong run from UConn’s Jasmin Folch put the Huskies in scoring position, and a quick recycle saw Alecia Alleyne dot down. Nikki Sills added the conversion for the 7-0 lead. Before halftime, Princeton scored to trail 7-5 into the break.

The Tigers returned to the pitch renewed and put in another two tries. Jessica Lu’s score and Emily Kent’s conversion marked the last for Princeton, which held a 19-7 lead.

“With the game at its tipping point, lock and captain Emily Reed powered in from 30 meters,” UConn coach Mark Jordan remembered his team’s second try. “The game turned, and it was all UConn from then on, pressuring Princeton into many penalties.”

Laura Heatherman and Jess Alves were particularly motivational as the team worked to eliminate the deficit. A nice set of phases put Sills beneath the posts, and her conversion tied it up 19-all. UConn came right back from the restart, and that pressure produced a penalty opportunity with seconds to go. Sills coolly kicked the game-winner through the uprights, 22-19 to end the game.

UConn can disarm Air Force if it employs that same intensity in the fall final. The academy side won the West Regional by defeating Minnesota 31-18 in the quarterfinals and Northern Illinois 67-5 in the semifinals, but did so while incurring a large number of penalties. At one point, Air Force was down to 13 players against NIU due to yellow cards.

“That was just inexperience – poor positioning, hands-in, not rolling away,” Air Force coach Amy Rusert explained. “We’ve been working on the players’ gap in game knowledge, and they’re much more conversant now. But we did hemorrhage meters, and we know we have to get our penalty count into the single digits.”

Rusert’s in her first season with Air Force after a decade with Colorado College. She inherited a young, small (in numbers) squad, and got a good understanding of her team while playing DI Elite BYU, varsity Army, and Navy during the Mountain West conference season. She focused on building a strong defense, heaping responsibility on the individual for executing her role on the pitch. The confidence for a potent attack followed. There are no standouts or stars, and the players embrace a 1-15 philosophy.

“Minnesota was the real test,” Rusert reflected on the playoff weekend. Our fringe defense was great. We knew they’d be bringing a big, strong, Midwest forwards game. We plugged those gaps, stopped their driving maul, and took those arrows out of their quiver.

“We had seen BYU, Army, Navy – varsity or varsity-like clubs – and were trying to calibrate how good we could be," the coach reflected. "Some of that is resources, and some is game knowledge, which we’re working hard to build. We saw the hard work pay off in the context of comparable clubs [last weekend].

Air Force opened up against Northern Illinois, which had defeated Texas 53-45 for the semifinal berth. Led by co-captains Maddy Midas at fullback and Gianna Khoudary, Air Force celebrated a 67-5 win. Khoudary was especially influential, reading the field well and exploiting opportunities to the tune of four tries. Rusert praised the halfback’s ability to the drive the attack and shepherd the pack.

“We didn’t focus on winning as an objective but as a byproduct,” Rusert said. “We’ve been working on becoming more sound on basics and evolving – but we didn’t expect to get here so quickly. So it’s been a little shock in our campaign.

“They’re prepared to leave it all on the field,” the coach asserted. “And they’re equally excited that it’s all on the line. And should they win, they’re ready to progress through the spring.”

The DI fall championship will occur at 1 p.m. EST on Sunday, Dec. 6, and be live-streamed here.