Rugby crowned national champs

The women’s rugby team poses with their Division II National Championship medals after defeating Winona State 50-13 in a rematch of last year’s final, marking the first national championship in program history. Courtesy of Joe Clifford.

On Sunday, Dec. 2, instead of rain pouring from the skies as it had the day before during Vassar’s semifinal win against the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, the air in Charlotte, NC was hot and humid, seemingly thick with tension. Looming was a rematch of 2017’s Division II Women’s Rugby Fall Championship Final: Vassar vs. Winona State University.

The Vassar side was looking to make program history. The seniors, led by captains Oshana Reich, Jennie To and Makena Emery, had made the Final Four each of the previous three fall seasons, finishing fourth, then third and last year, second, but the program remained without a National Championship to its name.

Winona took an early 3-0 lead after a Vassar penalty gave them the chance to kick it in for points. Even so, the Vassar players stuck to their game plan, which had been meticulously implemented by coaches Tony Brown and Mark Griffiths in the preceding days, and a combined effort from the forwards and backs set up senior Kaitlin Prado, who dived over the try line to get Vassar on the scoreboard, leading 5-3. The rest of the first half was non-stop back and forth action, with Vassar keeping majority of the possession through powerful rucking and smart passing, while Winona showed off a strong backline not afraid to run the ball wide. At the end of the first half, Vassar maintained a 17-13 lead thanks to tries from sophomore Molly Lynch and senior Kate Sworden.

During halftime it was impossible not to think of last year’s Championship game, in which Winona State came back from a 29-7 deficit to narrowly eke out a 38-36 victory, but no one understood the stakes better than the Vassar players, who came out with a second-half performance for the ages. Fast and furious defensive speed and some bone-crunching tackles left the Winona side scoreless in the second half.

Meanwhile, Vassar never let up on the attack, incrementally pushing their advantages until their defenders tired and withered under the onslaught of Vassar ball carriers. A barrage of tries from Sworden, Prado, To and junior Charlotte Benoit, coupled with an impressive kicking game from junior Aislinn Vences-Dimas—who slotted five of seven conversion kicks— gave the Brewers a 50-13 lead.

When the referee blew his whistle for the final time, the Vassar squad was not alone in their jubilant celebrations. A number of family members had made the trip to North Carolina, and many friends and program alums streamed the game online from places such as Los Angeles, London and the watch party in the Gordon Commons.

The Vassar women’s rugby team holds up the National Championshiop trophy following their historic win over Winona State in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018. Courtesy of Lisa Law Photography.

Coach Tony Brown was quick to credit his team’s defense for the win, saying, “This current squad has really had to be very disciplined and structured to defeat other teams. They have put a lot of work into their defensive skill work and organization … This 2018 team has improved defensively as the semester has progressed and was able to implement plans effectively.”

While seniors like Prado, Reich, Sworden, Emery and To shone for the Brewers throughout the fall season, the real strength of the squad may be its depth. Last week, in the lead up to the Final Four, multiple players pointed to depth as the team’s greatest asset in interviews with the Misc. Throughout the season, depth allowed the Brewers to practice at a higher level and overcome the wear and tear rugby takes on the players. “We are lucky to have the breadth and depth of talent on our roster that we do,” Prado told the Misc last week. “Everyone is constantly working hard to improve and diversify their skills so that even if several people are injured, there are people who can step up and play.” Because of this depth, every player, even those who did not feature in the games over the weekend, proved integral to the team’s success.

After 24 years at Vassar and the near-triumphs of the past several seasons, Coach Brown seems to grasp the significance of the Championship victory. “To win this title means the world to the players both past and present,” he said. “It validates what we do on a daily basis and gives Vassar a national spotlight.”

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