North Carolina has now played every women’s DI college in the South’s Cardinal Conference, and they’ve exited the first round with a 4-0 record. While the first three wins came easily, Saturday’s 36-24 win against North Carolina State proved to be a challenge.
UNC edged North Carolina State by one try, but the expert boots of Carrie Moss and Jessica Meidinger combined for 11 points on four conversions and a penalty kick for the extra cushion.
NC State got on the board first, when UNC opened the game with a deep kickoff that was mishandled and produced a UNC lineout on the 22 meter. A series of offensive miscues saw possession return to NC State, and after a series of penalties, the team was able to dot down a try.
"We just could not stay out of trouble around the defensive rucks,” UNC coach Johnathan Atkeison said. “We worked all week on a high-pressure defense system around the ruck, and using that pressure to create turnover opportunities. But between perhaps being a little overzealous in our attempts to poach, and not being quick enough in adapting to what the referee was calling, we put ourselves on the referee's radar early and paid the price the rest of the day."
UNC evened up and then dotted down another try just before half to take the lead, a position they wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the game.
"At half we talked about changing the way we were contesting defensive rucks, and a few other things we could do in the second half to try and limit the number of penalties we were giving away,” Atkeison said. “State has a very strong and physical team, and they were playing a great pattern to maximize their advantages and minimize their risks with the ball. Our girls knew they were in for a battle the entire second half, but they did a fantastic job of stepping up, distributing the defensive work across the team and just steadfastly refusing to let the line break."
With 15 minutes left on the clock, the score stood at 36-19 after tries from Moss, Brittany Lademan, Chelsea Tyler, Beth Sherling and Meredith Carter. With five minutes to go, NC State got their final try of the game to end 36-24.
"As a coach, it was a game that will give you a few more gray hairs, but it was a fantastic contest between two teams who were determined not to give an inch,” Atkeison said. “I was very proud of our girls; we may not be the most physically imposing side, but the girls showed how much heart they have collectively, just refusing to back down from the physical style of play that's State's hallmark."
"I have to give a ton of credit to the State ladies as well, though,” Atkeison continued. “They didn't let up for 80 minutes, and I'm really happy to see the success they've been having this year. There's been a huge improvement in the quality of play across our union over the past few years, and I think we're all getting much better for it."
UNC has been adjusting well to the uptick in competition. The squad graduated 15 players from last year’s team and has relied on the remaining veterans to push the youngsters’ performance.
"What the new players have been able to learn and accomplish so far has really exceeded our expectations,” Atkeison added. “Our returning players have done an amazing job embracing their role as mentors and teachers all season. That said, because we're so young, there are still going to be days when we make a lot technical mistakes, which I think was reflected in our penalty count on Saturday. That's something we're going to focus on improving for the rest of the season."
UNC revisits East Carolina this weekend and hopes to repeat its 56-22 victory from earlier in the season. NC State will take on the winless South Carolina, which fell to State 73-0 on February 4.
DI Women College - South's Cardinal Conference