Into the final round of Midwest Women's DI College championships, only Michigan and Northern Iowa remained undefeated, having advanced to the final with wins over Indiana (41-10) and Grand Valley State (9-8) respectively. The title match was match was brutal, but Michigan held onto a 29-24 victory for the #1 seed to Nationals in the spring.
"As a coach, it was difficult on the nerves," Michigan coach Herb Reich said of the nailbiter. "We led the entire game, at one point by 22 points, but we made a lot of silly mistakes that hurt us. UNI was tenacious and you could see that were motivated to make a comeback."
Once again the Michigan forwards paved the way for the attack, but faced an even more sizeable front row in UNI. Michigan was still able to drive their scrums back, however, and that made a huge difference. Michigan's mauling, which was a huge scoring factor in their massive win over Indiana yesterday, worked well off the lineouts.
The forward battle produced little quality ball for the backs, which produced a scrappier game out wide. Backs coach Neil McClusky credited centers Sarah DiStefano and Couryn Beleck for making positive gains from the 50/50 passes they received, and scrumhalf Michelle Wong, who kept the defense on their toes with two tries. Flyhalf Mary McCarthy had a couple of nice breaks, as did fullback Denise Cherbra, who linked up well with her back three and accounted for a try.
Unfortunately for Michigan, they lost flanker Stacy Sillenton, a quiet force in who doesn't do anything flashy but is a great tackler and solid link between the forwards and backs. UNI was riding the wave of yesterday's closing-minutes win over Grand Valley State, and used Michigan's momentary dip in confidence to stage a comeback.
"They wanted it, there's no doubt about that," Reich said. And first got on the board with a 90-meter intercept try.
UNI picked up its intensity in contact and was able to turn over some ball in the breakdown, then quickly moved the ball to space onto a good striker. UNI has some good athletes with pace who are able to put it away and slowly inched its way back into contention.
UNI's kicker did a good job of relieving Michigan pressure with a solid boot that made good on two difficult conversions.
"We started to reel a bit at the end," Reich said. "We were fitter but we were just trying not to lose at the end of game, and they were pushing hard to win. They put us under pressure, and we made some little mistakes that they're good players took advantage of."
But Michigan still had some gas in the tank, pressuring UNI's try line for several held-up tries, that had they been touched down, would've sent the team's points total over 40. "It was the culmination of two days' worth of fatigue," McClusky said. "They had the game early, relaxed a bit, and then got back in it. If they hadn't picked it back up, then we could have lost the game."
"Overall I'm happy with the performance. We won the championship and that's the bottom line," Reich said.