How AIC Won NIRA's DII Final
How AIC Won NIRA's DII Final
AIC beat West Chester to win the NIRA DII final because they refused to allow themselves to ponder defeat, and because they finally had accepted the truth about themselves.
The truth, of course, was, and is, that the Yellow Jackets are all sorts of badass in the contact area. In a game where they needed to hit hard and keep hitting hard, they brought it all, and while West Chester never backed down, they were shoved back a bit—just enough, in the end, to see their undefeated season end with a loss to American International.
West Chester opened the scoring in less than a minute, working the ball nicely from sideline to sideline, exploiting AIC infractions and, finally, running a quick tap that led to lock Olyvia Eckard powering over from short range. Also the Rams' goalkicker, Eckard put the extras over for a 7-0 lead.
AIC answered, using their ascendency in the scrum to help them find some go-forward and with No. 8 Louisa Justice and wing Annekkia Ritter-Truxal finding some yardage. Eventually it all came down to a ruck right on the tryline, and lock Jessica Berggren handled it perfectly, picking up, staying low, and launching forward for the try. Flyhalf Allyson Potheir converted. The game remained 7-7 for some time. It wasn't as if the game was slow—far from it. Both teams made inroads into the opposing 22 only to see a massive tackle, a small mistake, or a penalty turn the play around.
AIC prop Darlene Tafuna emerged as a key ground-gainer, while WCU center Autumn Czaplicki and flyhalf Madison Rettenmaier orchestrated the Rams' attack. The game was punctuated by several thundering hits, with AIC center and Ireland international Ivana Kiripati and Justice contributing some highlight-reel tackles. WCU answered in kind ... mostly. AIC's size advantage showed itself, especially in the breakdown where they needed fewer players to secure ball, or, for that matter, counterruck for a steal.
"We knew they were going to come in hard in the rucks," said scrumhalf and co-captain Julianna Aliprandi. "But as much as we could've prepared for that they won that today and that's a huge game-changer."
Midway through the first half Czaplicking ran a loop move with wing Emioly Almoney that set the center free for a nicely-taken try and a 12-7 lead. That lead held until the final moments of the first half. AIC got a scrum in their end and Justice and Kiripati got them going. Then a penalty set up a lineout and from there eventually the ball made its way out to Kiripati, who had been relatively quiet offensively, opting instead to serve as a decoy. This time, with a matchup against a prop she took a half-gap, drew the attention of three defenders, and popped a pass to tiny, and speedy, fullback Suley Guerrero, and she was gone around the edge for a try.
Pothier's conversion made it 14-12. That try looked like a momentum-changer, and it was. Right after halftime Kiripati ran down the sideline fending off tackler after tackler to score another try, and while Czaplicki answered almost instantly, AIC was more and more in control.
WCU couldn't get clean scrum ball because they were shoved back every time. Aliprandi, who was superb and one of the best players on the field on the day, tried everything she could to get the ball out cleanly from the scrum, but it was tough going. WCU didn't seem to want to use No. 8 Heather Spangler to pick up and run, and she certainly seemed able.
Ritter-Truxal capped off an excellent team movement to add to AIC's lead, and then Berggren, a much-deserved MVP of the game, reprised her lower-drive pick-and-go to ice it 29-17.
Heartbreak for a very good West Chester team, but jubilation for AIC, which had found its identity in being hugely physical and aggressive, and channel that aggression into hard tackles tha don't get penalties, scrum dominance, control in the tackle so they can pass and make offloads, and fearlessness.
"I know this team was like this, or could be like this, at the beginning of the season," said AIC Head Coach T. Fletcher. "I just needed them to believe it. Eventually they did."
AIC's women's volleyball team won their conference championship on Saturday, and the bulk of that group celebrated by driving to West Point, along with many from the AIC men's rugby team, to cheer the women on. That fan support certainly helped. Knowing they had already upset Queens University to get to the final, and so had nothing to lose helped. Having players who are well coached enough to execute key skills (a goalline pick-and-go, a two-on-one, a crunching tackle that is not too high, a tackle, release, and jackal) helped.
But maybe a bit of self belief helped too.
And the scary part? This team is very young. they'll be back.