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Perfect: Dartmouth Wins NIRA, Goes 9-0, Over Brave West Point

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Perfect: Dartmouth Wins NIRA, Goes 9-0, Over Brave West Point

Dartmouth celebrates. Brian Foley Dartmouth Athletics photo.

Dartmouth held off a West Point 28-18 in a thrilling, action-filled NIRA DI final Saturday night at the US Military Academy.

Paced by a stifling rush defense and two pivotal tries from No. 8 Idia Ihensekhien, the Big Green ran out to an early lead and held on in a back-and-forth match.

Dartmouth started the game on the front foot, rushing into the faces of the Army backline and, when the Black Knights attack was too static, forcing them back phase after phase.

That’s often How Dartmouth advanced, and then when they got the ball they smacked into the breakdown with alacrity, keeping Army, once again, backpedaling.

“I think that’s what set us apart all season, I think we have the best defense in the country,” said co-captain Emily Henrich. “Bringing that pressure today was really what was going to shut them down because they do have such hard carriers.”

A series of surges got Dartmouth close to the line and Henrich kept low in contact to just get it ball on the line just a few minutes into the game. But after that Dartmouth controlled much of the territory.

The Dartmouth rucking and aggression in the breakdown got them close and then Ihensekhien took the pass and galloped over against a sparse Army defensive line.

That made it 14-0, and Dartmouth had several other chances to score. They ran a set move off a scrum in the middle of the field that looked to get fullback Lilly Durbin over, but the Army tackling was just good enough. They sent Sophie Ragg down the right sideline on several big runs, but Army wing Sydney Schaff did well to deny her the tryline.

And little mistakes—knock-ons, passes astray—just undercut what could have been a 28-0 lead. Each time such a mistake resulted in a scrum Army No. 8 Julia Riekena picked up and made major yardage to get her team out of trouble. 

Army finally got into scoring position and eventually opted to kick at goal and Codi Butt put it over with interest. The two teams entered halftime 14-3, and you got the feeling Dartmouth may have squandered their chance to put Army away.

“We had spent so much time in their 22 and leaving without many points was disappointing,” said Henrich. “We know they would come out really hard in the second half.”

“We fell behind in part because we made some defensive errors,” added Army co-captain Rebecca Syrup. “We knew we needed to shore that up and be more aggressive.”

Comeback Time

And so that’s what happened. Army found some go-forward with Kaylee Cargile and Naomi Colin carrying defenders through the middle. Sometimes the Army backline switched around, with inside center Sophia Linder being the first receiver and flyhalf Kaitlyn Schwarting moving to the second spot, where she then acted as a playmaker further away from the breakdown.

That resulted in some chances for Schaff and Charisma Henry on the outside.

But it would be Dartmouth who struck. Army was working their backline and looked in control but a slightly floaty pass was picked off by Ihensekhien and she charged virtually untouched in under the posts. It was a killer blow for Army because they were playing with such confidence. Dartmouth led 21-3.

The Black Knights started to get more territory. Linder went off injured but the resulting change actually worked nicely. Henry, who had made some key defensive plays in the first half, moved from wing to outside center and was electric, cutting through gaps and then linking with her wings Schaff and Kahala Bandmann. 

In the Dartmouth 22 prop Lauren Ousby started to make meters after contact and center Emma Richards-Smith found chance as well.

The Black Knights got right to the line and Army hooker Molly Murtagh picked up and snaked over for her team’s first try. Murtagh then turned to the packed crowd at Anderson Rugby Complex, most of them (but certainly not all) Army fans and urged them on. The noise shook the field and the chase was on.

Now it was 21-8 and soon it was 21-13 with a very well-executed move seeing Colin taking a huge hit as she offloaded to Butt for the score. 

Army was in position now to make Dartmouth really nervous and a huge run from Schaff with Henry right there got them close to the Dartmouth line. Then one of the more improbably plays happened as Dartmouth prop Seven Sassano intercepted a pass and took off down the field. Not the fastest player on the pitch, Sassano caught everyone by surprised and rumbled to midfield—desperately looking for support all the way—before she was caught. 

A penalty after that and Dartmouth ran a set move putting Durbin into the middle of the line; she cut through briliantly and beat the cover defense to go over. It was another momentum-changer and perhaps one too many.

Army was back on the attack again and Schaff finally got the try she deserved to make it 28-18, but there was no more time.

Both teams came out of the game wondering what might have been  at moments in the game. Dartmouth certainly felt they could have built a huge lead in the first half. Army’s comeback was stirring, but undercut by a piece of brilliant anticipation from Sassano and Durbin putting salt in the wound with the try. 

It was a well-played game with teeth-rattling tackles and all-out effort.

“All I can say is we left it all out on the field,” said Army co-captain and prop Hope Moseley.

Ihensekhien was the MVP of the game with her two tries and her controlling of the go-forward especially in the first half. But Dartmouth scrumhalf Ale Ada was instrumental and center Kristin Bitter was also. Flyhalf Abbey Savin’s unselfishness in setting up her teammates, and her goalkicking, converting every try, also kept the pressure on Army.

For Army, Henry did just about everything right and at 100% pace, and Colin put her body on the line to help spark the comeback.

It was a game worthy of a final, and for Dartmouth, capped off a perfect 9-0 season.

“Obviously there’s a lot of pressure but I think just caring for each other so much we just wanted to see it through and I’m glad we did.”

Dartmouth 28
Tries: Henrich, Ihensekhien 2, Durbin
Convs: Savin 4

Army 18
Tries: Murtagh, Butt, Schaff
Pens: Butt