By Justin Bercovich & Katia Protsenko
Even in a sport known for its rough play, the DIII women’s rugby national championship game between UC Santa Cruz and Iowa State was as physical as it gets. In a game marked by injury, Iowa State knocked off the defending champion Slugs to claim the national title.
The match, held at Stanford University’s Stueber Field on Saturday, commenced with the Cyclones’ immediate domination of field position, followed quickly by a try, putting them up 5-0.
“After we watched them play in Florida two weeks ago, we weren’t expecting that right out of the gate,” Cyclones coach Sara Hillebrand said. “That gave us the confidence.”
UCSC coach Brett Amos was also surprised at the Slugs’ lackluster start.
“We are usually the team that comes out strong,” Amos said. “I think nerves got to us. I think the target on our back finally caught up to us.”
Iowa State’s Ashley Cleveland scored two tries in the first half of the game, and one more in the second half. Amara Reddick scored a try for the Slugs in the first half. Jacqueline Leeman and Kelsey Setliff both got on the board in the second, with successful conversions by senior kicker Meagan Healy.
“For the first 15 or 30 minutes, we were out of it, and not really playing our game,” Healy reflected. “As a team, we knew we had to step up, and we did. We fought back, but obviously it wasn’t enough.”
The physicality of rugby was highlighted throughout the match, with both teams sustaining their fair share of injuries. With 11 minutes remaining in the first half, four players went down in the course of a single play, laying strewn about the field.
“I haven’t seen a game like that in a long time,” Amos said. “Both sides were just going down. Knees, ankles, concussions — we have two girls that don’t remember what happened, and they finished the game.”
In addition to the two concussions, UCSC senior Mashawna Miller tore her ACL and junior Michelle Sit separated her shoulder. But injuries didn’t stop either side from competing.
“When you play a hard team, injuries are very usual, and so when they happen, you can either get off the field or you can stay,” Sit said. “There was no way in hell I was getting off the field today.”
A motivating factor for the Slugs was the roaring crowd, filled with families, friends, and former players.
“When we were down two tries, [the crowd] really picked us up,” Amos said. “We thought we would have more of an advantage at the beginning of the game, but sometimes being away and being the underdog is what you need.”
The final attempt for the Slugs came with just four minutes remaining in the game, when they were within a few feet of a game-tying try, but the Cyclones’ suffocating defense warded them off, kicking the ball out of danger.
“You’ve got to get your mental game together to pull out of those situations,” Hillebrand said of her team’s final goal line stand. “They did an excellent job of handling that stress of the game.”
Despite the loss, the Slugs, who started ten freshmen, were satisfied with this season’s achievements.
“I’m frustrated, but I’m also very proud,” Amos said. “We had goals to get here, but I don’t know that we thought we could. Being here today and getting second in the nation is something to be proud of.”
Now that these freshmen have a year of experience, including a trip to the national championship game, the team is optimistic about the future.
“We’ll be back here to win it all,” Amos said, “and we’ll win the national championship next year.”