Recap vs. Pittsburgh Passion – April 13, 2019

New-Look Divas Start Strong with 54-22 Win over Pittsburgh
DC 54, Pittsburgh 22
By Neal Rozendaal

Springfield, VA – It was an offseason of many changes, but as the D.C. Divas embark on their 2019 season, at least one thing has remained the same: their winning tradition.

A new-look offense saw pass completions to nine different receivers – a franchise record – and the defense pitched a second-half shutout as the D.C. Divas defeated the Pittsburgh Passion, 54-22. It was the 134th win in Divas history, breaking their tie with the New York Sharks for the most victories ever in women’s football.

The D.C. Divas made several changes in the offseason. Rich Daniel took the reins of the team when owner Paul Hamlin stepped down after 14 years at the head of the organization, and the Divas welcomed a new home field at the beautiful St. James athletic complex in Springfield, Virginia. But some things stayed constant: the Divas opened their 2019 season against their oldest rivals, the Pittsburgh Passion, squaring off with them for the 19th time in this historic rivalry that dates back to 2003.

The Passion (1-1) got off to a hot start. Pittsburgh’s Angela Baker – typically a standout wide receiver – manned the quarterback spot in this contest and gave the D.C. defense fits early on. Baker threw a four-yard touchdown pass to Krystal Cozzo on the game’s opening drive, and the same pair connected on a two-point conversion pass for a quick 8-0 Passion lead.

But the Divas (1-0) had an answer on their first offensive drive of the season in the form of D’Ajah Scott. The Divas faced third and 11 near midfield when Scott picked up nine yards on a carry to bring up a manageable fourth and two. Scott then carried for five yards on the next play to move the chains and keep possession for the D.C. offense.

Scott wasn’t finished on the drive, however. Two plays later, she ripped off a 32-yard gain to give D.C. a first and goal from the Pittsburgh nine. The Divas lost two yards in two plays, but on third down, star wide receiver Kentrina Wilson hauled in a pass and was pulled down by two defenders inches short of the goal line. That ten-yard gain was Wilson’s only catch of the contest, as the Divas spread the ball around to numerous receivers.

Fittingly, D’Ajah Scott capped the drive with a one-yard plunge on fourth and goal for the touchdown. Madeleine Entwistle kicked the extra point, and midway through the first quarter, the Divas pulled back within 8-7.

On the ensuing drive, the D.C. defense forced their first turnover of the season when rookie Nichelle Blake fell on a Pittsburgh fumble at the Passion 43. The Passion intercepted a deep pass on the very next play to get the ball right back at their own 29. But the Divas defense made another stand, forcing a three and out, and Scott fielded the Pittsburgh punt and returned it into Passion territory.

The Divas then drove down for their first lead of the season. Quarterback Amanda Congialdi flipped the ball to Scott on a broken play for an 11-yard gain to the Passion 31. A few plays later on third and nine, Congialdi found Shaquanda Gainey open over the middle. Gainey reeled in the pass, spun around, and broke two tackles on her way to a 30-yard touchdown. The extra point kick was no good, but the Divas had pulled in front, 13-8.

Pittsburgh fought right back with a 62-yard scoring drive to regain the lead. On the first play of the second quarter, Baker cut through the D.C. defense for a six-yard touchdown run. Baker then tossed for the two-point conversion, and the Passion were back on top, 16-13.

But D’Ajah Scott got the momentum right back for the Divas, bursting for a 28-yard gain to the Pittsburgh 27. Then on third and four, Dana Blakey stretched for the sticks and picked up four yards for a first down at the Passion 17.

Two plays later, it was time for a little trickery from the D.C. offense. Congialdi walked to the end of the line, barking out signals and appearing uncertain about the play call. The Divas then quickly snapped the ball to Scott, who flipped it to Blakey. Blakey tossed a pass to Congialdi, who slipped behind the defense in the confusion and carried the ball for 12 yards down to the Pittsburgh two-yard line.

Scott took it from there, racing to the pylon on the next play for a two-yard score. Scott then scored on a two-point conversion run, and the Divas seesawed back into the lead, 21-16.

After a Passion three-and-out, the D.C. offense unleashed their downfield passing attack. Congialdi connected with Lexie Floor deep down the sidelines for a 22-yard gain, then on third and 12, Congialdi found Remy Olinzock behind the Passion defense for a 28-yard reception inside the Passion red zone. Shelly Freeman finished off the drive with a one-yard push into the end zone, and Freeman carried the ball for a two-point conversion to put the Divas ahead, 29-16, with 5:05 left in the first half.

A great kickoff pinned Pittsburgh deep in their own territory on their next drive, and defensive back Jessica Johnson quickly put the Divas firmly in command of the game. Johnson read Baker’s pass and jumped the route, picking it off and returning it 14 yards for a backbreaking D.C. touchdown. Entwistle’s kick stretched the Divas’ lead to 36-16 with 4:15 remaining before halftime.

The Passion got a little momentum back with their final drive before the halftime break. Baker was sidelined after a sack, but the Pittsburgh offense was not to be denied. Kara Prentice came in at quarterback, and on fourth and goal from the D.C. four-yard line, Prentice found Jana Meister on a touchdown pass as time expired in the half. The two-point conversion attempt was no good, and the Divas led at intermission, 36-22.

The Divas and Passion exchanged three and outs on their opening possessions of the second half. But when the Passion were forced to punt from their own four-yard line, Scott was there to field it. She initially bobbled the kick but then she scooped up the ball, juked past a defender, and followed a wall of blockers to the end zone for a 38-yard punt return touchdown. Scott’s third score of the contest gave the Divas a 42-22 advantage early in the third quarter.

Two recent returnees teamed up to provide the Divas with their next score. The Passion decided to go for it on fourth and three from their own 37-yard line, and Jen Gray – who spent the past two years playing for the Baltimore Nighthawks after five seasons with the Divas – made an impact in her return to the team. Gray had a dominating sack on fourth down that gave the D.C. offense great field position deep in Pittsburgh territory.

Kasee Hilliard, who played five years at receiver for the Divas from 2012-2016 before taking two seasons off, cashed in on the Divas’ next possession. Hilliard hauled in a 15-yard strike from Congialdi for the touchdown, putting the Divas ahead, 48-22, with 5:26 left in the third quarter.

The Divas defense continued their outstanding play, pitching a shutout in the second half. On the ensuing possession, Kucheria Eades forced a fumble that was recovered by Nichelle Blake, her second fumble recovery of the contest. Blake also logged five tackles, good for second on the team behind Jessica Johnson’s seven. Quiana Ford, a team captain on defense, chipped in four tackles of her own.

Remy Olinzock made a terrific diving catch for a 27-yard gain on the Divas’ next possession. The Divas showed a wide-open passing attack in this contest, completing passes to a franchise-record nine different receivers: Wilson, Gainey, Floor, Olinzock, Blakey, Hilliard, Scott, Freeman, and Congialdi.

Leading 48-22 entering the fourth quarter, the Divas were able to get a number of reserves playing time in this long-standing rivalry. Curtina Pope capped the scoring with a one-yard touchdown run, and the Divas came away with a 54-22 victory.

The Divas return to action on April 27, when they face their archrivals and defending national champion Boston Renegades.