PRINCETON, N.J. - It had been five months since Norwich University played a qualifying match, having won the Northeast Championship last November. They spent the "mid-season" preparing for the physically and mentally challenging Sweet 16 which is played in April.
Just two weeks prior to their Sweet 16 match against Rutgers University, the Cadets' opponent had to drop out. The next two weeks were spent trying to replace Rutgers and multiple candidates stepped up with Stony Brook taking the final opportunity just days before competition. Yet, a day before the match, Stony Brook stepped out of competition, leaving Norwich with a first round bye.
Saturday, April 21, was beautiful in Princeton, NJ. A disappointed and "game-less" Norwich team arrived first to the fields and, in lieu of a game, spent the morning practicing. After practice, they watched Vassar College dismantle a young American International side. Parents and alumni were abundant, providing meals and keeping the team hydrated with cold water and Gatorade. The team stuck around to watch the Army-Navy Division I battle – a battle for the ages - with Navy edging out the win in the final minutes of play, 25-20.
"It was tough for us to watch two games on Saturday when we were so amped to play ourselves," Coach Austin Hall said. "Watching Vassar, and knowing we'd likely face them on Sunday, we saw a much improved team than we had faced in the fall. They were more physical, they were moving the ball well, and their scrumaging was exceptional against a much larger pack. Their front row was outstanding. We knew we would have to play harder on Sunday than we had in fall."
With thunderstorms scheduled to hit the area Sunday morning, the Division II final was scheduled for 8:00 a.m. The Cadets arrived at the field at 6:45 a.m. to begin their pre-game in the cold and rain. The parents and alumni arrived around the same time and smells of grilled eggs and coffee permeated the fan seating area.
Norwich continued to retain possession and territory for much of the next 20 minutes. The Vassar defense, however, proved strong and resilient. Finally at the 22-minute mark, freshman scrumhalf Emily Orr (Uxbridge, Ontario) set up sophomore center Jackie Derocher (Northwood, N.H.) for the second try of the day. With a missed conversion, the score was 12-0.
Just 10 minutes after her try, Derocher was given a yellow card, the first of her career, and Vassar looked to take advantage of the player advantage. But Norwich rallied without their center and began an uphill battle with some tighter phase play, concluding in a crashing, finishing run by junior lock Corinne McElroy (Canaan. N.H.) at the 36-minute mark. Baugus converted and the half ended 19-0.
With a huge contingency of Norwich family cheering from the sidelines, the Cadets went back to work for the second half. Senior captain Katie Hathaway (Amesbury, Mass.) ran through the heart of the defense nine minutes in to go up 24-0. Hathaway's work rate around the field was inspiring to watch, and it was good to see the captain rewarded for her work with a try.
An all-out race occurred to give Norwich their fifth try at the 54-minute mark. Sophomore fullback Rose Bernheim (Andrews AFB, Maryland) took a ball inside the Norwich 22, side-stepped two Vassar defenders and raced 80 meters up the sideline, before Vassar superstar wing O'Mara Taylor caught up to her. Keeping up in the race was also Norwich speedster wing Adria Pickin (Homestead, Fla.), who was the beneficiary of a perfect offload from Bernheim, as Taylor made the tackle on the 5m line. Pickin was able to run center and touchdown for the try. An awesome effort from all players involved. Baugus converted and the score was 31-0 with 25 minutes to play.
Norwich would cap the game with a final converted try at the 70-minute mark. Bushey dove in for her second of the match, and Baugus converted to give the Cadets 38 points.
Vassar would still not back down. With 10 minutes to play, they parked themselves in Norwich territory and refused to walk away empty handed. They finally got the try they were looking for when flanker Dallas Robinson crashed in for five. The successful try made the final 38-5.
"I am happy with how we managed the weekend," said NU coach Austin Hall. "The mix-ups with having a different opening round opponent just about every day for a week and then ending without an opponent on Saturday affected us but not enough to deter us from our pursuit. Our parents and alumni were unbelievable in support, topping their own amazing performances in previous matches."
With the win, Norwich will head to Palo Alto, Calif. to play 2010 national champion Washington State in one of two national semifinals Friday, May 11. In the only meeting of these two teams, WSU was victorious 15-5 in 2010. The other semifinal will pit Shippensburg against Winona State.
Norwich next travels to Dartmouth College on Sunday, April 29, for a 5:00 p.m. friendly match. It will be their final preparation before the national semifinal game.