Heading into the second half of league play, NOVA women’s coach Brian Walker knew it would be difficult to replicate the team’s perfect record. The opposition would adjust and be prepared for the Capital DI leader. His suspicions rang true last Saturday, as Philadelphia – which had lost the teams’ first match by 34 points – defeated NOVA 22-19 to match the Virginia side’s 3-1 record.
“It was a tightly contested match with enough back-and-forth to make the sidelines feel they were on a roller coaster,” Philadelphia coach Bob Weir said. “It was a real nail-biter given the pace and action of the game until the very end.”
The roller coaster began three minutes in when Emily Tunney’s penalty kick put Philly up 3-0. The game slowed down afterward, as the slippery, muddy conditions, which were produced by three solid days of rain, saw a lot of knock-ons and slow running. NOVA wing Kathryn Hemlock made good use of one such handling error and scooped up a loose ball for a 25-meter try, 5-3.
Tighter conditions favor Philadelphia, which has some good size in the forwards. At 23 minutes, the hosts found themselves in favorable territory: five meters off the NOVA tryline and a scrum to inch themselves closer. A nice move off the set piece and captain Tunney dotted down and converted for the 10-5 lead.
The lead changed once more before the half, when a cross-field kick landed in the hands of NOVA outside center Mo McQueen. She linked up with Hemlock, who took the ball deep inside Philly’s 22 meter. From the ensuing ruck, hooker Hayle Ziobro hit wing Meredith Nelson, who scored in the corner. Flanker Rachel Primo made the difficult conversion, 12-10, and was rewarded with the halftime lead.
NOVA kept up the pressure in the second half, and three minutes in, flanker Erica Cavanaugh turned over the ball, drove through several defenders and set up quick ball for the backs. McQueen sent a long, bouncing pass to Hemlock, who ran in her second try of the day. Fullback Amy Kingsbury added the extras, 19-10 NOVA.
There the game stood until minute 62, when Philadelphia fullback Izzy Cerullo scored the first of her two tries, 19-15. It was an important score, especially for Cerullo, who was enjoying her first game back since an ankle injury. Little did she know that this game would become even more poignant for the Columbia grad.
“Riding momentum off the score, Philly pressed the attack and spent a long period of time inside the NOVA zone, where desperate tackles were required in bunches,” Walker said. “But the pressure began to wear and at the 77th minute, Philly scored between the posts and made the conversion to regain the lead for the first time since the 31st min, 22-19.”
Cerullo dotted down that final try. NOVA fought for possession in those waning moments, but a late knock-on at midfield ended the game, and Philly’s first win against NOVA in five years was in the books.
“We’ve worked hard on our defense as the season has progressed,” Weir said. “The backline, led by flyhalf Kate Hallinan, stayed focused and took the space and time away from NOVA’s potent attack. Philly is always stingy with possession, but the keys for the victory this weekend were successful restarts in lineouts, where Whitney Hilleman and Becca Fagan mastered the throw-and-catch; and the realization that winning rucks doesn’t win games – breaking the gainline does, as exampled by No. 8 Kristin Aliberto and inside center Katy Black’s powerful and secure runs late in the second half.”
“Philly played a great game; we have no excuses,” Walker said. “We had a long honest debrief after the match about our performance, and the bottom line is it wasn't good enough. Winning on the road is tough, and we have to be mentally tough enough to overcome adversity in all its various shapes and forms.
“This one falls on me,” Walked added. “I've got to do a better job of communicating some concepts at practice. We've got some great young talent but we need to be a little more street smart. We left some opportunities on the field in their end and we didn’t clear the zone cleanly in ours when we had the chance. In the long run this will be good for our program because there is nothing like a loss to force you to confront your flaws.”
Despite the loss, NOVA is still on track to win the Capital league. Both teams are 3-1 but NOVA is two bonus points ahead in the standings (one from Saturday, losing by fewer than seven points; and the other from their four-plus tries against Philly in the first meeting).