The scene was unbeatable: The sun was setting on West Point’s Anderson Rugby Complex, which abuts the Hudson River and a backdrop of rolling hills and fall colors. The lights went up and two of the best DI women’s colleges – Norwich and Army – took the manicured pitch. The only thing lacking, as far as the hosts were concerned, was the boisterous hometown cheering filling the stands, as Norwich dominated for a 48-12 win.
This was a big win. Army is arguably the second-best team in ACRA, and Norwich ruled every aspect of the game. The Vermont side was organized, proficient, strong and fast, exposing the fact that the gap between #1 and #2 is vast.
The victory also illuminates the progress that Norwich has made over the last few years.
“When I was a freshman, we watched Army against Navy in the Sweet 16s. We’d never seen two military academies play each other before, and it was the most athletic game we’d ever seen,” Norwich captain Baylee Annis said. “It was incredible to watch them play, and we thought: We want to be this team. Two years later, and we’re there. They were our idols, and now we’re somebody who gets to beat them.”
Norwich has defeated Army three times during the last year, but the previous two contests weren’t as decisive as this 36-point victory.
One of the most impressive aspects of Norwich’s game was the ability to right their wrongs. For instance, play was frequently halted for a forward pass (Norwich was fond of the flat-ball but also worked hard to send leading passes down the line), awarding Army the scrum. Norwich regained possession by wheeling said scrum, frequently, and easily. Or at the end of the game, when Army’s defense caused some sloppy ball inside their 10 meter, flyhalf Hannah Bell quickly slotted a dropgoal to end the calamity for good – a move reminiscent of former flyhalf Emily Baugus and last year’s Final Four win over Stanford.
There were so many impressive moments: No. 8 Vanessa Champagne has an uncanny ability to contort her body to pop the ball out of contact; wing Joya Clark looks like a super hero the way she stiff-arms and spins in the air with ball in hand; lock Valerie McGuire turned out to have the best booming boot, sending the longest clearing kick of the game; and front-row Annis wasn’t only fending would-be tacklers to the ground but looked perfectly poised standing in the flyhalf position when called for.
A glowing picture, but Norwich wasn’t perfect. As mentioned, the team didn’t adjust well to the referee’s forward-pass calls. In fact, penalties were a big problem for the Vermont side. That lack of discipline helped set up Army’s first score, when Bell was sin-binned for a high tackle. Army got a long run down the sideline pushed into touch, but the Norwich throw-in sailed long and Army worked the sidelines spreading the defense. It seemed like the depleted defense was doing the job just fine, pushing Army backward with every pass, but wing Chioma Odocha finally found some space around the corner for the try, 12-5.
With 12 minutes left in the half, this was Army’s opportunity to close the gap. The Cadets still had a player advantage, and Norwich was still racking up the penalties. Army received two identical shots at goal, about a minute apart, right in front of the posts but about 30 meters out. Those two attempts sailed wide, leaving important points off the board.
There was no comeback in store. Norwich stifled attempts at elongated phase play by beating Army to the breakdown and turning over the ball. Once on the front foot, there was never an isolated ballcarrier or a ruck unguarded. Just solid. Army had some individual highlights, like the solid performance of Betsy McCracken (she scored in the second half) and some penetrating runs by the inside center, but nothing gelled.
Bell, Clark, McGuire, inside center Ally Day, outside center Emily Colesworthy, wing Jackie Derocher and flanker Sophie Mundell all scored tries, while Bell added five conversions and the dropgoal.
“One thing we took advantage of was some holes in their defense … and if they didn’t give us a hole, we made one,” Annis said. “We definitely tried to utilize some kicking today. We like to kick and chase and receive – we really love anything that has to do with kicks. So this was the first time that we said, if they give us an opportunity to kick at them, let’s try it out.”
Aside from Day, the kicking execution was sub-par, but once Norwich perfects that area of the game, they’ll have another weapon at their disposal.
“We value this game above anything else we do this year,” Annis let the win sink in. “Our whole season is about playing Army. [This win] attests to our ability to set a standard and meet it. It shows the hard work we’ve put in, and every time we play them, it’s a better game for us.”
As is the case in select conferences around the country, the Northeast is now Norwich and everyone else.