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Redemption and Title for the Falcons

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Redemption and Title for the Falcons

The USA Rugby Fall Championships, hosted by ACRA, was marked by rematches. In DI, USA Rugby's best (Penn State) and ACRA's best (Norwich) replayed an early-season thriller (read more). In DII, last year's ACRA finalists revisited the pitch, and the trophies exchanged hands.

Notre Dame College drew attention early this season, as it dismantled USA Rugby DII champion Mary Washington, played a tough game against DI Penn State, and creamed all of its DII competitors en route to the fall championship trophy. But a year ago, it was the Falcons who were nursing wounds after losing the ACRA title to Winona, and the Euclid, Ohio, side has spent the last year building toward redemption.

The varsity squad has been lauded for its recruiting efforts, but a winning team isn’t built by simply adding players. This is something that forwards captain and DII fall championship MVP Rebecca Swainson knows. The New Zealand native and loose forward was on the field when the Falcons fell to the Black Katts in 2013 and has been an integral part in this year's championship run.

“The start of the season saw only nine returners from last year, and throughout the season, we saw this number drop to six through injury,” said Swainson, who was also sidelined at times for a broken finger, injured hip and tender shoulder. “We had a lot of new recruits come in … and had our ups and down this season. Our loss against Penn State highlighted areas that needed improvement, and we were able to take a lot out of that game and work harder at training.”

It was that friendly against the Nittany Lions that helped lend perspective to the strength of Notre Dame College. Halfway across the nation, Winona was taking note of the new-look team.

“All season, we knew that the odds were good that the championship would be a rematch,” Winona coach Josh Krzewinski said of the 2014 title bout. “We did some scouting, found some film. We were aware of their abilities – they added much more speed and intensity to their game. My girls certainly knew it was going to be a tough contest.”

The Black Katts were eager for the rematch, but consciously focused on controlling the controllable. The same went for the Falcons, but they weren't above checking out the competition while in Florida last weekend.

“Winona was a completely different team from last year,” Swainson said. “Watching their game on Saturday in the semis, the coaches and I saw some of their key players, including their 13 [Lanoira Duhart], and saw the strength of the forwards. We didn't really change our game plan to play Winona; we knew what we had to do and went out and performed well.”

The key to Notre Dame College’s win was always going to be in out-maneuvering the Winona forwards. If Mark Andrade’s team could take the potency out of the bigger, contact-loving pack, then the Falcons could work its fast-paced, wide-open game.

“Our forwards were strong in the contact and were able to hold Winona back the majority of the game,” Swainson said. “Our front row consisting of Najya Jordan, Kawena Kuamoo-Mendiola and Patsy Ford were strong for both games and were able to hold their own – meaning, at set plays, we were able to maintain ball retention and even turn over the opposition's ball.”

The forwards came through, and that allowed the backs to shine.

“Lea Walsh did a superb job captaining the team on Saturday and was a huge support to my decisions made on the field as captain on Sunday,” Swainson said of the flyhalf. “She commanded her back line well and performed well under defensive pressure. We had the ability to bring in fresh legs off the bench, trusting our reserves could perform and not change the game. We all played the best we've ever played, and we played as a team, which makes me the proudest captain.”

“The gap will be tough to close no doubt, but that's what motivates us to work harder, lift more, increase our fitness,” Krzewinski said. “Competing against scholarship schools and being as successful as we have been is very rewarding. We feel we can compete with anyone at the d2 level.”

While one certainly hasn’t seen the last of Winona, one is guaranteed to see more of Notre Dame College, and soon. The Falcons have guaranteed their berth to the national final on May 9, when the team will play the spring champion.

To revisit how Notre Dame College earned its fall championship title, click here.

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