RUGBYMag's Women’s Game of the Year occurred between two reliable sources when it comes to good rugby: Norwich and Stanford. The two collegiate giants had never faced each other, playing on opposite coasts and different divisions until the 2012-13 season. Their paths finally crossed on May 3 during the DI semifinals.
Aside from the fact that the victor would inevitably face Penn State in the final, a lot of interest surrounded this match. The Cardinal were the Nittany Lions’ most consistent and closest competition, and the public was eager to measure DI newcomer (and then-reigning DII college champion) Norwich against a well known entity.
As the game unfolded, the sides flexed their strengths – Stanford had an edge in the set pieces; Norwich had superior team speed – but the unbalances weren’t turning into clear advantages: There were five lead changes and two ties throughout the match.
The biggest points gap favored Stanford – 28-17 in the second half – but then Norwich reiterated its ability to outwork opponents late in the game. Tries from Ally Day and Emily Oor pulled the Cadets to within one point, with 18 minutes left to engineer another lead change.
Norwich looked to miss a golden opportunity, when Emily Baugus missed an off-center penalty with eight minutes remaining, but her teammates were quick on the ball as it fell short of the goal posts. That pressure forced Stanford to ground the ball in their try zone, setting up a five-meter scrum for Norwich. The forwards held onto their ball, as Baugus slid behind the scrum and nailed the dropgoal, 30-28.
“I probably have 16, 17 dropgoals in my career,” Baugus said. “It started with a challenge from an alum during my sophomore year, when I took over flyhalf. She said she’d been trying to do it for years, and I thought: I can do that! And now it’s turned into part of our strategy.”
The Cadets were ecstatic; it was a tough battle to the top of the scoreboard.
But Stanford was far from defeated. The hosts spent the next five minutes fighting their way back into scoring position and were rewarded with a penalty outside the 22 meter, just off center. Stanford No. 8 Ally Gleason, tormented, paced the field as she factored in time remaining, her kicking percentages, and continuing an offensive on-slaught toward the try line. Finally, the varsity soccer player opted for the three-pointer, and the hometown crowd erupted as the ball soared just inside the right post, 31-30.
It was a fantastic scene, the Stanford players sprinting back to their 40 meter in preparation for the restart, perhaps looking ahead to the final but trying to stay cool during the last minute of play. Stanford’s ecstasy contrasted with Norwich’s solemnity on the 50 meter. Captain Baugus told her teammates to get to the 22 meter and she’d put another dropgoal through the posts.
With nine seconds left, Norwich received a penalty on the 22, but on the sideline. Baugus forewent the kick and requested that prop Baylee Annis take the tap and move play closer to center. The All American did her job, but Baugus didn't have time to attempt the dropgoal. Instead, she shipped the ball back inside to No. 8 Vanessa Champagne, who charged upfield drew the opposition to the goal posts. As Norwich's intentions became quite clear, Stanford balked, overzealous as they rucked over Champagne, and gave up a penalty in front of the posts. The players knew it was over when Baugus lined up the dead-center penalty, and the flyhalf easily slotted the go-ahead points on the last play of the game, 33-31.
“That was definitely in the top two,” Norwich flyhalf Baugus ranked that semifinal. “I can’t decide between this one or last year’s against Washington State [being number one]. It’s the semifinals, seems to do it to us. But with this team, these teammates, this game is definitely number one.”
Number one for us, too.