Certainly one of the shockers of the season, American International College nearly knocked off Norwich University during ACRA’s DI college playoffs last weekend. The forerunner for the DI title, the Cadets held off the Yellow Jackets to a 19-15 victory during yesterday’s quarterfinals and – just barely – qualified for the national semifinals on Dec. 7 in Auburndale, Fla.
The two teams had met during the regular season, with Norwich prevailing 39-19. The 20-point loss turned heads AIC’s way, however, as that scoreline was Norwich’s most competitive all season, even better than Army’s. The rematch unfurled on Sunday, after Norwich first defeated Syracuse 70-20, and AIC bettered Brown 34-0 in Saturday’s Round of 16. Norwich was able to rest its starters a bit more, having built a 51-0 halftime lead and emptying the bench in the second stanza. AIC isn’t as deep, and nine of its starters are freshmen (although Cassidy Meyers and Megan Pinson can hardly be considered untested). AIC also has one of the most prolific college players in the game right now: Jess Davis.
Initially, it appeared that Norwich was going to exert its will on AIC, as fullback Rose Bernheim scored two minutes into the game and flyhalf Hannah Bell’s conversion gave the Cadets a 7-0 lead. Fewer than three minutes later, sophomore center Ally Day scored, and Norwich was up 12-0.
AIC gathered itself, and at the 18th minute mark was finally rewarded with a Davis try. The rest of the half went silent in terms of the scoreboard, but the Eagle prop struck again two minutes in the second half, 12-10 to Norwich.
“We knew that Norwich had strong runners, which they like to utilize by keeping the field spread and moving the ball across it with a wide passing game and support,” Denham delved into AIC’s game strategy. “Those wide passes are actually difficult to make in general though, and even more difficult under pressure. Knowing that, we put up a lot of defensive pressure, preventing them from being able to move the ball wide and forcing a lot of knock-ons.”
The game-winning points came in the 48th minute, when Norwich scrumhalf Emily Oor ran in Norwich’s third try, which Bell converted for the 19-10 lead. Five minutes later, AIC closed the gap to four points, as Domonique Cammock scored the Yellow Jackets’ third try, 19-15.
The ball game was far from over, and AIC dominated the rest of the game in terms of possession and territory. Norwich, however, was unflappable on defense and repelled AIC’s attempts at the line. Norwich’s collective experience – and therefore, composure – in these intense, higher-level games outweighed AIC’s, and that made a difference in the end.
“What is a little frustrating for us is that while we managed to dominate possession [68% AIC - 32%NU], our young side may have perhaps lacked the critical decision-making skills that come in time with experience to be able put down a few more tries,” Denham said. “We also had a couple of instances where we executed out attacking pattern beautifully, found the mismatch, but then our handling skills let us down at the finish, meters out from the try zone. These instances alone would have put our point count on the winning end, and that is extremely frustrating.”
The game's outcome was frustrating, but Denham and team are pretty excited about their accomplishments this fall.
“It was a heartbreaker for sure,” Denham said. “Despite the score, the inside story of the game is so promising for AIC and very impressive for such a young group coming together in such a short period of time. I am really proud of what the girls have accomplished this season. … We are already looking at what we do next, and where things went wrong - those critical decisions. We are using this game as a massive opportunity for learning and growth.”
Norwich, Army, Navy and Northern Iowa are still in the hunt for the first-ever DI ACRA title and will sort it all out on Dec. 7-8. The seeds have yet to be released, so the semifinal match-ups are presently unknown. Norwich will be very busy in the interim, as the two-time defending 7s champion has taken an at-large bid to nationals this weekend (Nov. 23-24).