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After falling to UCONN in the 2015 DI fall championship, the U.S. Air Force Academy dethroned the Huskies with a 19-8 victory in today’s college final.
Now stronger and more experienced, the Air Force entered the DI fall championship match against the UCONN champs with a strong sense of unfinished business. When Air Force somehow managed to compete in last year’s final against the Huskies, they were scrambling, juggling a new coaching staff and a young roster. That baggage motivated the team through the 2016 fall season and ultimately helped them exact revenge over the team that bested them just a year earlier.
“The win against UCONN felt great, but we set our sights early in the season to do our level best to return to the finals to take care of some unfinished business, whomever the opponent,” AFA head coach Amy Rusert said.
A rainy, slippery first half held the rivals to 8-7, with the incumbent fall champs UConn holding the lead to a point. Adding immediate pressure UConn took the first lead of the final when fullback Sara Rothery, taking a pass from Rachel Gomes, inserted and offloaded to Alecia Alleyne for a try around the 9-minute mark. With Rothery failing to make the conversion kick, the Huskies maintained a 5-0 lead.
Though Air Force held a significant portion of the half in UCONN’s zone, it lost ample territory on simple catch-and-pass errors. The poor weather no doubt made controlling the ball difficult, but even before the weather deteriorated, the team continued to make countless open or overhead passes.
At the 16-minute mark, Air Force received a penalty, giving Rothery the opportunity to get three for UCONN on the penalty kick, pushing the team’s early lead to 8-0.
As the sprinkle of rain turned to a shower, Air Force picked up its passing game, progressing towards the goal zone in much more cohesive, communicative phases. These improvements were noticeably effective and rewarded: Ashlee Salato dove across the line for Air Force’s first try, and Jacqueline Hamby scored a solid conversion to tighten the score to 8-7.
The first half ended with neck-and-neck aggression, but as the Zoomies grew more confident on the pitch after the break, the Huskies struggled to make use of their superior size. Less than two minutes into the half, an incredible kick-and-chase placed Air Force in scoring position. Just a few phases after the lineout, prop Carter fell into position for a try, gaining the 12-8 lead over UCONN.
Neither team successfully gained much ground in the second half; the match became a back-and-forth passing game with knock-on after knock-on, rather than one of field position and gaining territory.
Though more powerful on the shove, UCONN struggled to link up in the back and consequently failed to keep Air Force from scoring. An excellent kick from Kelsie O'Brien put the Zoomies once again in striking distance, and Simone Duryea exploded off the surge for another try. With the Hamby conversion, Air Force extended their lead 19-8.
Ultimately, time ran out on the incumbent champs, who were unable to score in the second half. With a final score of 19-8, the Zoomies avenged their loss from last season.
For Air Force, gaining retribution over UCONN was more than a great showing rugby. It was a demonstration of the team’s determination, of the team’s love for not just the game but each other. At the squad’s last training session before leaving for the championship, Rusert praised her players by inspiring them with the words of Eddie Jones: “We try to teach the players to be to be comfortable at being uncomfortable.”
Rusert explained, “Maybe [Air Force] are mentally tough and comfortable being uncomfortable because it's who they are inherently as cadets at a Service Academy, maybe it's because they have a deep and abiding dedication to each other and to a relatively new sport that they now love, maybe it's a little bit of all of it…We as coaches encourage them to take risks, we encourage creativity, we encourage them to make their own decisions, we invite them into the process of learning in a socratic sort of way and along with that we tell them we all need to embrace mistakes that are going to come as a result.” She concluded with immense pride, “On and off the field they are comfortable being uncomfortable and the results have been both fun and immensely rewarding. “
Air Force 19
Tries: Salato, Carter, Duryea
Cons: Hamby 2