The Midwest contested its first round of women’s DI college playoffs this weekend, beginning with the quarterfinals. All of the matches save one were blowouts, or non-existent in Ohio State’s case.
Due to eligibility issues, the Eastern Conference supplied three teams to the quarterfinal round, thereby sending #1 Western team OSU to the semifinals with a bye. Northern Illinois continued on its dominating path and ousted Indian 51-7, while Michigan dismantled Iowa State 52-5.
But the third game between Notre Dame and Minnesota was much more exciting, and saw the former advance on a 17-15 win over the Irish. Both teams scored three tries apiece, but UM No. 8 Mel Krug’s conversion made all of the difference.
Minnesota started the game strongly and saw freshman wing Hailey Koehler dot down for the 5-0. Notre Dame did well to take advantage of some space and wide, and that’s where the team was able to make the most ground. Outside center Ashley Okonta was particularly difficult to contain and she helped set up scoring opportunities, including the two that the Irish scored to go ahead 10-5.
But the momentum shifted back to UM just before the half as the offense regrouped. Flyhalf Rachel Lentsch broke through the defense and gave UM the 12-10 lead into the break.
The UM scrums and backrow work in the loose allowed Minnesota to retain a lot of possession, and solid lineouts allowed the backs to run successful, penetrating lines. Notre Dame challenged every breakdown and set piece, but UM remained solid and limited their turnovers.
Notre Dame reclaimed its lead by sticking to its outside attack, dotting down another unconverted try, 15-12. With 15 minutes remaining, scrumhalf Debbie Stenoien took a lineout ball into the corner for a two-point lead, and the defense held its ground against a hungry Irish retaliation.
“This may sound cliché,” UM field captain Mel Krug said, “but the difference in the game was heart. Every single player came with passion and determination. This is the furthest our team had made it in the last 6-7 years. We've constantly been a developing team and we showed up to compete and put up a fight. We finally know what it's like to be a consistent, winning team with a big chance at nationals.”
Minnesota will have to get past OSU this weekend if they want to realize their national potential. Michigan will have to down Northern Iowa on Saturday. Both have incredible scoring capabilities that will surely be challenged in the semis.
For Michigan, success relied on a balanced attack that produced quick ball on which to keep Iowa State scrambling. No. 8 Stacia Simonsen played a big game, as did second rows Shaina Warner and Christine Lisee. Captain and flyhalf Mary McMarthy acted as general on the pitch and did a good job organizing the attack.
“We have put in hard work on our fitness and it showed in the pace of the game,” Michigan coach Herb Reich said. “We were able to finish with support to score tries. This was lacking last weekend. Iowa State put together some nice phases and our defense stayed organized.
“We have been focusing on communication to help us sustain pressure,” Reich continued. “It's starting to come together. Northern Iowa has a big pack and depth in all spots. So Saturday coming will be a massive test for our young team.”