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Wayne State Women's Rugby Club Wins National Championship

Published: 11-26-2012 4:25 pm

Of The Wayne Herald

CHERRY HILL, N.J. – Last year, Wayne State's hopes for a potential national championship in women's rugby were blown up in an unlikely scenario in the Elite Eight that left the team playing with three fewer players than their opponent.

This year, they were inches away from seeing their championship dreams thwarted yet again – but summoned the courage of a champion to win a national title.

Although the Wildcat ruggers wrapped up the National Small College Rugby Organization's (NSCRO) national title with a 32-0 win Nov. 18 over Roger Williams (R.I.) University, it was the thrilling finish of the previous day's 23-21 semifinal win over Wheaton (N.Y.) College that Wayne State rugby fans will remember for a long time to come.

The game went back and forth, with the two teams trading advantage on the scoreboard throughout the Nov. 17 game. Kelsey Meyer's late field goal gave Wayne State a two-point advantage, but as time was winding down, Wheaton College found themselves in a position to score the game-winning try, possessing the ball less than three yards from the Wayne State try zone.

It was then that Wayne State's defense rose to the occasion, stopping four consecutive efforts by the Hot Steppers in the final minute to come away with the win and advance to the championship game.

Even after returning home Monday afternoon, it was hard to put into words the defensive effort the team summoned to avoid a crushing defeat.

“My heart almost sank,” senior Amber Kutnink said. “I thought they were going to cross the line, but our defense was rock solid and we were able to hold the line.”

“I was just scared to death,” senior Lacy Tonniges added. “(Coach Darin) Barner talked about how, if we play defense well and the other team doesn't score, they don't win and that's how it turned out.”

Junior Maggie Warrick added, “Those wins don't come from anything but coming together as a team and knowing everybody is going to do their job. We just wanted it so bad.”

Wayne State got scores from Maggie Warrick, Jasmine Kovacs and Haley Wright, and a very tough conversion kick from an impossible angle by Kelsey Meyer later in the second half actually provided what would turn out to be the winning points.

But it was that goal-line stand that put the Wildcats into the championship game, and coach Darin Barner said it was hard to see from their place on the sideline what was going on near the Wayne State goal line.

“It was tough, and they had four shots in the last 30 seconds and we just had a great defensive stand,” he said. “It left us a little battered going into the championship game, but we knew that if we didn't win Saturday there would be no national championship game.”

After that brush with defeat, Barner and the team returned to the field late Saturday night and stood, hand-in-hand, along the goal line they had defended so valiantly earlier in the day.

“I had them stare at it for two minutes, and I told them that if they wanted to win a national title, nobody's going to cross this line,” he said.

The Roger Williams Hawks didn’t even come close to that line.

The Wildcats used a defense that stretched out Roger Williams' speedy flankers and kept them from making any significant upfield gains the entire 80 minutes, building a 20-0 halftime lead on the strength of scores by Tiff Randall, Wright and Kovacs, along with a 12-yard penalty kick by Meyer.

“We developed a defensive strategy to make them flow the ball wide, and they couldn't quite turn the corner on us because we had so many players out there waiting for them,” Barner said. “Our scrum did a fantastic job and they ran a lot of yards, but it was all sideways.”

Barner was hoping his team could at least add another field goal to make it a four-score game, but he got more than that midway through  the second half when Randall scored her second try of the game, and senior Lacy Tonniges put the finishing touches on the 32-0 shutout  with a late try of her own.

When the game was finally declared completed, the celebration began and the emotions ran unchecked.

“I just started crying, I was so happy,” Kutnink said. “It was so much relief and our bodies all were hurting, but it was just great. There was nothing better than seeing Barner showered in water.”

“I think we all had the urge to drop on the ground from exhaustion, but it was such a relief,” Warrick, the Final Four MVP, added. “It warms your heart to know that we set such high standards and were able to accomplish this goal. We're so lucky and blessed to have each other and I'm so proud of this team.”

“It was fantastic,” Barner said of seeing his team reach the pinnacle as NSCRO champions. “We lost our first game, but after beating Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Northwestern, I thought we had something special and to be able to carry it over is just fantastic.”

And, after a weekend that included a trip to the “Rocky” statue outside the Philadelphia Art Museum, a visit to the halls of Congress to meet with Congressmen Jeff Fortenberry and Adrian Smith, and a weekend full of intense, physical championship rugby, the girls were happy to receive the welcome home that greeted them outside the Student Center late in the afternoon on Nov. 19.

“We’re all hurting and it was a long, hard bus ride back,” Tonniges said, “but it's good to be home.”



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