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Norwich, Winona Look to Defend Fall Domination

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Norwich, Winona Look to Defend Fall Domination

Now that ACRA has been assimilated into USA Rugby, essentially – hence the official fall championship description including “hosted by ACRA” - the awkwardness of the two “national” titles will be resolved, to an extent. The DI and DII teams that emerge victorious on Dec. 7 will be known as USA Rugby’s fall champions and earn berths to the national final against the spring champion on May 9.

The system isn’t perfect. For example, teams can choose whether to compete toward the fall or spring championship, so it stands to argue that the DII fall champion is better suited for the national championship, as the majority of teams compete in the fall. And conferences are allowed to send teams to both playoffs – look at Mountain West, which sent #3 Air Force to the fall Round of 16, while #1 New Mexico and #2 BYU declared their spring intentions. And what happens with those teams that were placed in a fall bracket and withdrew last minute – like Texas A&M, which was supposed to represent the Southwest but then sustained too many injuries to participate. Does the conference get a second chance in the spring? Questions to be answered, but with the two factions – ACRA and USA Rugby – joining forces, a big step toward naming one national champion has been made.

Norwich and Winona are ready to upgrade their ACRA titles. The reigning DI and DII champions, respectively, have qualified for December’s final four. The Cadets had a more convincing weekend, defeating UCONN 100-22 on Saturday and AIC – for the fourth time this fall – 65-10 in the quarterfinals (AIC had beat Dartmouth 33-17 in the Round of 16 behind three tries from Jess Davis). Junior center Ally Day led the Cadets with six tries on the weekend, sophomore Meaghan Albert followed with four, and senior co-captain Vanessa Champagne dotted down three.

The freshman class impressed, as it has all fall, with prop Ilona Maher and wing Denisse Zambon scoring three tries apiece, and wing Alanna Giradin slotting 15 conversions. Also scoring were co-captain Emily Oor, Ally Murphy, Sophie Mundell (2), Natalia Mendez, Sarah Whalen and Riley Blankenship.

"AIC played an amazing game and for us it was a hard-fought victory," Oor told Norwich Athletics. "Each girl on and off the field played their part on the team to the absolute best of their ability today and an amazing team effort is what solidified our victory. Now we can shift our focus to the spot we earned in the final four and work on bringing home another championship."

Winona has had a varied build-up to the fall semifinals. First, Round of 32 opponent UW Whitewater forfeited a day prior to the match. And then the Black Katts played its first playoff to a 94-0 win over Arkansas. Sunday was different, at least according to the score. Utah Valley, which had eliminated Mankato State 32-25 on Saturday, put up more of a fight.

The weather (reference the Indiana write-up) was miserably cold at the University of Northern Iowa and that affected the fluidity and speed of the game.

“With the 14 degree air, wind and snow-covered field, we struggled with our footing and passing, disrupting our timing and offensive pace,” Winona coach Josh Krzewinski said.

Utah Valley struggled with penalties, especially for not releasing or rolling away, which also slowed down the game. But UVU was good on defense, and the team could tackle.

“We were often one tackle or pass away from a long run,” Krzewinski said. “Our forwards dug in and stepped up.

“We dominated the set pieces, often times driving over their ball in scrums,” Krzewinski expanded. “Kourtney Kavajecz was once again a force in the air at the lineout. Another area of pressure we applied was at the breakdown. We were quicker to the tackle on both sides of the ball, often counter-rucking and creating turnover opportunity for our attack.”

That allowed a 20-point lead at half, and it was plenty for the 20-7 victory.

“I'm proud of my girls for doing what they needed to to win,” Krzewinski said. “Low scoring or not, they played as a team in the wintery conditions and got the job done. Certainly a game – or at least the playing conditions – they won't forget.”

Both Winona and Norwich are familiar with frigid playing conditions, hailing from Minnesota and Vermont, respectively, and while that won't help in three weeks, their collective knowledge of playoffs in Florida will. Norwich will play Indiana in the semifinals; Winona will play Bowdoin.

For the full DI brackets, click here. For DII, click here.

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