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Riverside is the DII Spring Champion

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Riverside is the DII Spring Champion

The boot of Michelle Hong came through. (Photo: Derek Lucero)

CSU Northridge took a tough road to the DII spring championship. During the Round of 16, the SoCal champ needed overtime to beat UN Reno, and then slugged it out with Humboldt for a four-point win the following day. This weekend in Pittsburgh, Northridge defeated Florida International 27-5 in the semifinals, and then squared up against familiar opponent UC Riverside in today’s final.


When the SoCal teams met during the regular season, Northridge won 38-17, but up until the final 10 minutes of that game, only five points separated the teams. A yellow card opened up the field, and Northridge ran in three tries. So heading into today's spring championship, while Northridge may have leaned on a confidence that a win affords, Riverside let the wound of a mistake-driven loss influence today's outcome. 

“I think they thought it was going to be an easier game than we gave them,” UC Riverside coach Roger Light supposed. “Like I said yesterday, the team that made the fewest mistakes was going to win, and that's the game that happened."

The majority of the first half evolved with no score. Riverside enjoyed lots of possession in Northridge’s end, but the team’s attempts to run it through the defense were repeatedly repelled. Northridge got on the board first, but Riverside answered, the teams entered the break 5-5.

“There wasn’t really anything to clean up,” Light remembered the halftime talk. “It was just good, hard rugby. But in the second half, both sides started to get tired and made some mistakes with penalties  and yet, neither side really gained anything from it. The ball was changing hands more.”

The ping pong match continued, as UCR sent Liz Anguli, Alysia Jones, and Lisa Umeh over for tries. Fullback Michelle Hong put her side ahead by three points with a penalty, but then Northridge scored minutes later for the 32-30 lead that remained until the final play of the game.

“Northridge made a mistake on their 22 in the middle of the field,” Light remembered the waning moments of the match. “When the whistle blew, Northridge thought the game was over and that they won, but then realized it was for a penalty. To top it off, our girls tried to toe-through for a quick penalty, while we on the sideline were screaming for points. Luckily … luckily, we didn’t go through the mark, and the ref pulled it back for a redo. That’s when they heard us screaming on the sideline.”

It was a fortuitous circumstance, but Riverside still needed to make the three-pointer. Hong stepped up to the plate, made the kick, won the game, and Riverside was crowned champion.

“In my 25 years [of playing and coaching rugby], I’ve never seen a game that was so close, down to the wire, that meant so much,” Light said. “Northridge played like studs. They’ve earned a lot of respect, and that’s how they played today. Our girls just matched up.”

UC Riverside is in unfamiliar territory, playing in the highest-stakes games ever, traveling around the country, and now looking toward a national championship. The team needed a steadfast leader to keep the nerves calmed and the adrenaline pumping, and it got it from captain Alysia Jones.

“She is the backbone of the team,” Light commended the flanker. “Her organizational and leadership skills on and off the field really guided the team through.”

Flyhalf Desiree Millan is Jones' right-hand woman, and her direction was also a source of valuable leadership.

But the story isn't entirely over - and not because there's a national championship to be played against Notre Dame College. Riverside was not prepared for the financial demands of the spring post-season. At the end of March, the team competed in Albuquerque, N.M., for one game. Less than two weeks later, the Southern California team was in Pittsburgh for the final four. And now, the team must book travel for a May 9 national championship. Maybe Riverside never expected to get as far as into the post-season as it did, but that aside, three cross-country trips - all within two weeks of each other - is a tall ask. Coach Light indicated that the program was calling in every favor and looking for corporate sponsorship to get the team to Georgia, but it's going to be a struggle, if not impossible.