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UCONN Confident in Title Run

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UCONN Confident in Title Run

UCONN celebrates the DI fall title. (Photo courtesy USA Rugby)

Everything was different for DI women’s colleges this fall, as teams essentially split into three different championships. The increased activity didn’t concern UCONN, which went to work in the DI Northeast, tested itself at the East Regional, and then took home the DI fall championship last weekend.

“It’s everything, isn’t it,” UCONN coach Mark Jordan said of the title’s significance. “The team has worked very hard the last few years and is at a place where it’s functioning pretty well. It’s taken a while to get here, but now we have good discipline, good players, and we’re very happy.”

Jordan, who played his rugby in England and against fellow transplants like Nigel Melville and Vassar’s Tony Brown, arrived at UCONN approximately five years ago. He remembers a more social team that produced good players, but whose goals were less defined. Last year, the team had a breakout season, one where the point differentials were larger than this past fall and the only losses came to varsity Norwich and Army.

“Heading into the fall, I had a conversation with our captains and president, and told them I thought this was going to be a rebuilding year for us,” Jordan recounted. “We lost important players to graduation, and I thought it was going to be difficult to maintain that level of performance. But it just kinda grew and gained momentum.”

The Huskies went relatively unchallenged during regular season but suffered setbacks in the backline. Backs captain Gabby Benitez re-tore her ACL, scrumhalf and president Melanie Clarke broke her collar bone, and fullback Sara Rothery had missed three games prior to her MVP performance on Sunday.

“The forwards have kept it together for us,” Jordan praised. “They have been strong as a collective all season, driving us through the rough times.”

Forwards captain Emily Reed directed the pack, while lock Jess Alves put in a consistent, high-level performance every week. The second row earned the team’s MVP award for the season. Flanker Laura Hetherman has asserted herself and is “the action girl, picking up the ball and running at every opportunity,” Jordan said.

After winning the Northeast, UCONN advanced to the East Region championship and handled Kent State to a 61-5 quarterfinal win. On the other side of the bracket, Princeton, which had played into the tournament with a 76-point win over Boston College, bettered Notre Dame 49-18.

“Without question, Princeton was our hardest game of the season,” Jordan said of the semifinal. “We knew they were going to be good coming out of the Ivy League, playing good opposition week in and week out.”

UCONN took a 7-5 edge into the half and then Princeton surged ahead 19-7 in the second stanza.

“They were much bigger than us, and we had to fight back,” Jordan said. “That desire and will to win – a lot of the players in there just wanted greater things.”

The Huskies scored two tries to tie it up at 19. With little time left on the clock, the team was awarded a penalty in Nikki Sills’ range, and the excitement saw three different players handle the ball with a quick-tap mentality before Jordan’s sideline direction registered: GO FOR POINTS!

“Everyone kept mentioning how we won on the penalty kick, but the way we fought back, that said so much more about the team,” Jordan said of the 22-19 victory and berth to the fall title match. “The Princeton game proved to us that we could win this fall championship. If we could beat a team like that – it gave us so much confidence.”

UCONN lined up against Air Force in the DI fall championship on Sunday. The Falcons, which finished third in the Mountain West conference, won the West Region after defeating Minnesota and Northern Illinois. The Huskies proved more consistent and held off Air Force to a 19-12 win.

“We played a clean team game,” Jordan explained his team’s success. “Air Force played a basic game and relied on three or four individuals. And you can’t play at this level with the amount of penalties they incurred. The referee could have issued more than two yellow cards. He warned them a lot.

“We also didn’t give them the ball much, except for a five-minute lapse in concentration,” Jordan said of Air Force’s two tries. “Their defense is what kept them in the game. We threw everything we had at them, from everywhere, and they just tackled it all.”

UCONN is the DI fall champion and will compete for the national championship in May 2016 against the spring champion. Jordan is already concerned about the final, which coincides with UCONN’s senior graduation.

“As a one-off game, how do you build up? I don’t know,” said Jordan, who is taking the team on tour to Scotland in March, followed by Cherry Blossom and Beast of the East tournaments. “We’ll concentrate on getting our own game in order, and then we’ll know that we can compete with anybody, especially at the club level.”

But the trip to the national final isn’t the only reward. UCONN is enjoying that intangible trophy of heightened status and respect.

“We have the fear factor now, which is nice,” Jordan said. “Everybody looks to us as their hardest game of the season, and we’ve earned that over the last couple of years. It was a tougher start this season, but we’ve started to pull away.”

The DI national championship will occur during the first weekend in May, with St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif. rumored as the location.