If one picked Army, Penn State and Navy to head to the Women’s DI College final four, few could contest the argument that they're among the best four teams in the country. However, it’s an impossible scenario considering all three teams traveled to Princeton, N.J., for their round of 16 match today. The only entity that makes out when these bouts are contested this early in the tournament is the spectator, and today, everyone was treated to a fabulous Army v Navy game.
At one point, the defending national champion had a 10-point lead over Navy, but then the Midshipmen went on a 15-point, unanswered tear, and dotted down a try in injury time for the 25-20 win.
“It’s impossible to describe what it means to this team to play Army and actually beat them, especially for the firsties who are graduating,” Navy coach Sue Parker said of the rivalry. “This is a huge accomplishment, and to have beat Army in the context of this tournament makes it more special.”
It was rough going for both teams initially. The referee was incredibly strict around the breakdown, and the teams were slow to adjust to his standards. There was too much whistle during the game, and teams rarely enjoyed an extended amount of uninterrupted, fluid playing time. The game was made more interesting, however, by a bevy of yellow cards levied on both sides. Army was the first to go a man down, but still managed to go up 3-0 off an Emily McCarthy penalty.
Navy answered right back and marched downfield with some nice forward movement from inside center Jane Paar, who is incredibly difficult to take down and remarkably strong in the tackle – in fact, it looked like the Eagle 7s player was trying to make offensive tackles as a ballcarrier heading into contact. Prop Koi Watson finished off the long series by bouncing off a few defenders for 10 meters and into the try zone, 5-3.
Watson would be the subject of a spine-shuttering scene, when the prop’s shoulder slipped out of the socket during a tackle. Teammate Jenn Sandifer indelicately yanked on the front row’s arm – twice – to get it back it back into place and ready for more.
Army retook the lead when a scrum deep in Navy’s end saw McCarthy break weakside and dish to fullback Jess Sexauer, who fought through 10 meters of defenders for the try, 5-3.
From the very next possession, Navy stayed camped out inside Army’s 22 meter, and the cadets played excellent defense. Navy hampered their own efforts with a series of penalties and unforced errors, and was eventually awarded their first yellow card. But despite the man-down, a pretty lineout set up a backline movement that put Navy #11 into space along the sideline for the try, 10-8.
Lead changes were still on tap. The last score of the half belonged to Army, as Sexauer inserted into the line, took advantage of a flat-footed defense, and used her sideline teammate to pin defenders and find an alley to the try zone. One stiff-arm later, and Sexauer’s try gave Army a 13-10 lead into the break.
It’s safe to say that when both teams reconvened with coaches during halftime, the message was: No more penalties. The beginning of the second stanza started well enough, although Navy blew an opportunity for points when one player indicated an attempt at goal, and another tapped through the mark to surrender possession.
And then Annie Lee took the field. Last year’s DI National Championship MVP has been coming back from injury, and she only joined her teammates about 10 minutes into the second half. But, the wing made good on her first touch of the ball. Sexauer set up Lee along the sideline, and then the speedster danced around a couple of defenders before streaking 60 meters for the try and conversion, 20-10.
“The first turning point occurred after the half when we were able to adjust from getting so many penalties,” Parker said. “The refs were really picky about what was going on in the breakdown – it hurt us in the first half; it hurt them in the second half. Second, after Annie Lee scored a try, we made a good defensive adjustment and was able to take that weapon away. We got a lot of confidence from stopping that and were able to capitalize when Army had two players in the sin bin second half.”
Navy didn’t fold when Army extended its lead and remained composed. Army still had trouble with the whistle, and eventually went down two players. It allowed Navy to spend a lot of time in Army’s end, but credit due to West Point for repelling the Midshipmen’s long goal-line stance. The attack finally broke through when outside center Kacey Liscomb found room out wide for a try, 20-15.
Navy retained momentum and got some damaging runs from flanker Erica Peterson, and scrumhalf Brooke Amoroso remained poised as the minutes ticked away.
Their composure was finally rewarded after long breaks from Paar and Peterson get Navy deep into Army’s end. The forwards battered away at the line and hooker Jenn Sandifer finally found some green diving over the line, 20-all.
With the game on the line and time winding down, play became frenetic. Uncharacteristic no-look passes going awry killed a couple of Army’s attacking opportunities, while Navy was able to control possession a little more.
In injury time, Navy tapped through a penalty and Paar single-handedly got her team to Army’s 22 meter. A couple of phases later, the ball spun wide to the backs where wing Julia Hardgrove got around the corner, 25-20.
It was all Navy needed, as minutes later the final whistle sounded, and Army sank into disbelief.
“You can imagine how proud I am that they held that kind of composure against a team like Army,” Parker said. “Army was poised to make another run for the national championship.”
Navy is poised to take on Penn State in tomorrow’s round of 8 game. The teams saw each other a few weeks ago during the MARFU championships.
“Our cover defense was excellent, but we missed too many tackles that allowed them to go forward and retain possession,” Parker said of her team’s performance today. “We made good technical adjustments in the scrum – as they were pushing us around too much in the first half – and once we figured out what the ref was calling in terms of offsides and ball’s out, we did well in the rucks. We have to be more disciplined in keeping possession; if we can’t starve Penn State of possession, then we’re not going to give ourselves much of a shot.”
A lot has to go right against Penn State tomorrow, but it should be one of the best games of the tournament.