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“The 2002 Women’s College Championships were notable not only for the tense, exciting final, but for the competitiveness throughout”. – Alex Goff
The 2002 Collegiate Championship Tournament may go down as the most competitive championship of all time. Played in cold, windy conditions in Blaine, Minnesota, four teams: Navy, Air Force, Penn State and the University of Illinois squared off with no team willing to break.
Laura Murphy captured the match for Rugby Magazine, June 2002. In the first semi-final, Penn State defeated Navy 17-14, stealing the win in the final seconds of the match when PSU wing Leah Ackerman streaked her way down the sideline to score with no time remaining. Her score broke Navy’s heart and sent Penn State into the finals against Air Force.
Air Force made it into the final by defeating a tough Illinois team 7-5 in overtime. The match was a low scoring defensive struggle. It’s difficult to imagine, but the match ended 0-0 in regulation time. The first score of the game came in the final minutes of the first overtime when Illinois’s outside center scored to give the Illini the lead. But with less than two minutes left in overtime, the Air Force scrumhalf powered over the line to tie the match. The Zoomies were able to convert and take the win over an exhausted and heartbroken Illinois team.
The final was yet another close match as Air Force came back in the second half to defeat Penn State 12-7. In all three matches, the wind was a significant factor, as teams playing against the wind tended to find themselves bottled up in their own end for much the half. PSU scored in the first half off a driving lineout and was able to convert the try to lead 7-0. In the second half, Penn State was forced to deal with the wind and played much of the match in their own half. Air Force was able to score twice to take a 12-7 lead and hang on to win their second national championship.
As Alex Goff shares in detail:"The game was significant in other ways, as it was the beginning of a run of women’s college championships that raised the profile of the game, and brought with it the growth of lower-division competition, as well.
Penn State didn’t win this final, and in fact you could say the loss was the end of a strong period of 1995-2002 where the Nittany Lions made seven championship games, but won only two. Two years later, in 2004, Penn State would return to the championship game and reel off a twelve year dynasty in which they won eight titles.
But 2002 belonged to a special group at Air Force, coached by the legendary Alan Osur and led by the indefatigable Laura McDonald at flanker.
The game was a defensive battle, and a tactical battle. Every play, every set piece, was crucial. Penn State, playing with the wind and up a player due to a yellow card, put lock Stacy Jones over for a try, converted by Meghan O’Melia, and led 7-0 at halftime.
With the wind in the second half, Air Force was able to put lock Tiffany Williams over to make it 7-5. Still Penn State held onto the lead. But No. 8 Erin Harms took a quick tap on a penalty and scored with 12 minutes left. Adrianna Vonderbruggen converted, and Air Force led 12-7. There followed a torrid final period in which McDonald helped earn her MVP award with her defense and leadership.
As Osur told Rugby Magazine back when it happened: 'This is the best team I have ever coached, with its combination of rugby skills, playing ability, and personality…and this was the most exciting Final Four since national championships started.'"
All images from Rugby Magazine