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Harvard Builds on Strong Start in NIRA

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Harvard Builds on Strong Start in NIRA

Cassidy Bargell on the break. Photo Gil Talbot/Harvard Athletics

Harvard gets a stern test and then a week off in the Women’s National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA) league, and that’s good timing as the Crimson prepares to face Dartmouth October 23.

For the defending NIRA champion Crimson (they won it all in 2019 and there was no NIRA season in 2020), this is exactly what they want as they think about another championship.

Harvard sits 4-0, having beaten Mount St. Mary’s, Long Island University, Sacred Heart, and, last week, Quinnipiac but an average score of 69-9.

But Head Coach Mel Denham knows there are tougher games to come from Dartmouth, Brown, and Army.

“We have a back-loaded schedule and actually it’s worked out for us,” Denham told Goff Rugby Report. “We’ve been basically playing our full team during those games and we’ve been able to build some chemistry and build some skills. Against Quinnipiac we were bringing people from the bench on and we saw a lot of players putt their hand up. We’ve been able to bring this young team together in these lower pressure games.”

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Against Quinnipiac, who scored 24 on Harvard (the previous three games the Crimson had yielded only 10 points), Denham’s team needed to deal with little shifts in momentum and the real concern that the game could slip away.

“It was a nice opportunity for us to see a little bit more pressure,” said Denham. “We went out there with the goal of finding our rhythm in a game that would test us, and I’m pleased with how that turned out.

“We’re pretty excited to go into Brown,” the coach continued. “We had a chance to defend a bit more against Quinnipiac and you need to know how to defend.”

It’s all basically about learning to play when the game isn’t a runaway. The idea that a tough opponent “will score a few tries, and that’s OK,” said Denham.

Pacing Harvard are experienced players such as Cassidy Bargell at scrumhalf and Brogan Mior at center—both were instrumental in Harvard’s win over Army in the NIRA final in 2019.

But there are also younger players coming through. Loose forward Nafanua Fitisemanu has been ferocious in both attack and defense. Fullback Chloe Headland has emerged as a talent and first-year flanker Sofie Hilger is coming along nicely. Then there’s Chiara Darnton, who is a senior but walked on to the team. She is now a really smart and dependable blindside flanker. The depth looks good and freshman scrumhalf Reese Morgan has shown that when Bargell graduates, the position is in good hands.

Meanwhile outside center Anjalika Ybema out of Discover College in Hong Kong has partnered nicely with Mior to form a talented midfield.

Will all this be enough for a repeat? The next four weeks might tell us. For now, we just know that anyone who wants to unseat Harvard will have to go through them.