Colorado State and New Mexico duked it out for the top spot in the Rocky Mountains' women's DI college bracket, and after 80 minutes of thumping, CSU emerged victorious, 20-17.
"It was one of the most physical game we've played in a long time," CSU coach Jenna Middleton said. "New Mexico was ready to come out hard, and new coach Jill Potter has prepared them well. They have fit, strong forwards and quick backs, and were the best team we've faced this season."
Potter, who captained the USA Women last summer before suffering a RWC squad-eliminating injury, has relocated back to Albuquerque from Minnesota, where she had been playing for the Valkyries. The Eagle lock has only recently been cleared to play and has been channeling her efforts into the Los Lobos women.
New Mexico took a 5-0 lead minutes into the game and forced Colorado State to buckle down. The physicality of New Mexico stressed CSU early on, as the team had to cope with a pack that showcased only two of its regularly staring pack players. The team has suffered several key injuries since the fall and recently lost its No. 8 to broken ribs and flyhalf to a separated shoulder. Middleton and co-coach Amanda Kehmeier had to construct a new lineup that put two backs in the forwards, including wing Lindsay Ciepela to lock. Flanker Jozy Gessner, who had performed well for the USA U20s when an injury necessitated her services at the halfback position, moved to scrumhalf for CSU, and former #9 Sarah Rossi returned to her original position at fullback.
The changes paid off. While UNM struggled with their penalty count, prop Devyn Lane inched CSU to within two after a penalty kick. CSU then took a lead that it would never relinquish, when Gessner took a quick-tap penalty into the try zone, 8-5.
The teams traded scores, and Gessner did a good job getting the ball out of hotly contested rucks, especially considering the less experienced forwards who struggled to protect the scrumhalf. Former New Mexico player Liz Dinkel scored the first CSU try, and then wing Lauren Presley ran in a five-pointer of her own.
"Our backline offense really came together this game," Middleton said. "The passing was great and we got the ball out wide, where we have great speed. Our wings are blazing and Liz had a great try."
The game stood at 13-12 for a long time, until Gessner put the winning points on the board with a try, which Rossi converted. Rossi was instrumental in maintaining CSU's lead, as the New Mexico center Jade McLaughlin made a number of line-breaking charges toward the try line. Rossie put in three or four try-saving tackles that would have otherwise changed the outcome of the match.
"As physical as the game was and for the changes that we had to make due to injuries, I was happy with the outcome," Middleton said. "Our defense and counter-rucking was great, but the biggest thing we have to work on is our aggression, especially if we're going to see them again at regionals. We need to be quicker to the breakdowns, and the offense needs to want the ball, to create opportunity and run hard."
Colorado State faces Air Force this weekend, then has a week to prepare for regionals after returning from spring break. By then, CSU should have several of its starters back on the pitch, and prove an even more difficult opponent in the West.