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After a scorching hot start to the season, the Harvard women’s rugby team has been tested in the final stretch of their schedule, dropping two of their last three matches heading into the 2022 NIRA National Championships. The Crimson, who was previously undefeated on the season before its Oct. 15 defeat against Dartmouth, still managed to make their two losses close, with both coming down to the final minute.
After two entire weeks off from play, the Crimson came strong out of the gate in its senior game versus Dartmouth, with a try from sophomore scrumhalf Reese Morgan, followed by a beautiful solo drive by first-year center/fullback Tiana Padhilla. Another try from senior captain prop Achele Agada, along with the 10th and 11th successful conversions by junior flyhalf Brogan Mior on the season made the score a fast 19-5 advantage going into the half. This score marked the first time since 2019 that the Big Green had trailed in a game.
Unsurprisingly, reigning national champion Dartmouth, which had not lost a game in 1070 days, made adjustments at the half and closed the gap. Right out of the gate, the Big Green scored a try, leaving the score at 19-10. Soon after, however, first-year outside back Cameron Fields used her incredible speed to run the length of the field, scoring a try that put the Crimson up 26-10 following another Mior conversion. Yet the Big Green did not go away. After two quick tries, the score sat at 26-24, with the Crimson up 29-24 after a penalty kick by sophomore fullback/wing Chloe Headland. With 23 seconds to go, Dartmouth scored a tying try, with a conversion in the final seconds winning them the game. It was the first loss of the season for Harvard as well as the last time the senior class would play a home game in the regular season.
Despite disappointment against Dartmouth, the Crimson had a huge opportunity to regain momentum in their away game at Brown on Oct 22. Coach Mel Denham emphasized the team’s ability to rebound and learn from their mistakes after losses.
“Resilience is the one word that comes to mind when I think of our team,” she said. “One thing I am sure about with our team and our athletes is the ability to learn, improve and to bounce back.”
And bounce back they did, with a decisive 45-14 win. Though the Bears shot out to an early 7-0 lead, it was the only lead they would hold on the day. Tries by Padhilla and sophomore wing Kiani Akina, both followed by conversions from Headland–who showed off her consistency in going 6-6 on conversions for the day–set the lead out to 14-7. To round out the first half, outside back Victoria Stanley and back row Charlotte Gilmour continued the day’s trend of strong performances by first-year players, as they both scored tries of their own and sent the Crimson to the break up 26-7.
Unfortunately for the Bears, Harvard did not let up on the gas. Back-to-back tries from Headland, along with junior wing Maeve Humphrey’s first try of the season put the score well out of reach at 45-7. Brown would later score their final try in the waning minutes of the second half, giving the game its 45-14 outcome.
In their final game of the season, the Crimson traveled to West Point on Oct. 29 to take on Army. Despite a slow start to the match, Harvard succeeded in scoring the first try of the game: a breakaway by first-year back row/wing Lennox London that gave the Crimson a 7-0 lead after yet another conversion by Headland. The Black Knights were able to close the gap to 7-3 following a 10 minute yellow card to Harvard, and then later took the lead, 10-7. However, the Crimson, still down a player, showed off some of their resiliency, and Gilmour was able to fight into the try zone to retake the lead.
Following the half, the Black Knights showed some strength of their own. After a try to retake the lead, another penalty to the Crimson left it at a two-woman disadvantage, which Army capitalized on to extend their lead to 18-12. But Stanley wasn’t finished yet and found the try zone while still down a player, and an incredible conversion from Headland pushed Harvard to the lead again. In the final minute, however, Army was able to capitalize on another penalty, and converted, ultimately winning them the game 21-19. Coach Denham was undeterred by the loss.
“When we look back at the Army game, one thing that really stood out was our defense,” she said after the game. “We played the end of that game with 2 less players than Army (13 vs 15) and prevented them from scoring. That is the type of heart and grit that we’ll take going into this weekend.”
The Crimson will take on Army again on Saturday, Nov. 12, at 12 pm at Mignone Field for the NIRA Championships. Harvard, who fell to Dartmouth in the 2021 NIRA semifinals last year, will look to replicate their 2019 championship win this year.
“Our goal this season has been to build each week and have our last game be our best game,” Denham said. “Our talk now is around playing the way we know we are capable of, and keeping the focus on the moment.”
–Staff writer Mimi S. Koenig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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