Recap vs. Kansas City Tribe – July 25, 2009

Numerous Penalties Doom D.C. Divas in National Title Game, 21-18
Kansas City 21, DC 18
By Neal Rozendaal

Round Rock, TX – The Divas’ second appearance in the national title game will be hotly debated for years to come.

Heavy favorites over the Kansas City Tribe in the 2009 IWFL national championship game, the D.C. Divas were flagged for an astonishing 24 penalties – 23 of them in the game’s first three quarters – and fell to defeat in Round Rock, Texas, by a 21-18 score. The Divas were officially penalized for 193 yards but had an additional 77 yards of offense nullified by penalties as well, and ultimately, it was too much for the Divas to overcome.

The D.C. Divas (10-1) started the game well. Sharina Western recovered a Kansas City fumble at the Tribe’s 20-yard line, but the Divas were unable to capitalize on four offensive plays and turned the ball over on downs.

The Kansas City Tribe (10-1) got their first big break of the game when the Divas fumbled a Kansas City punt at their own 26-yard line. But the Tribe, like the Divas before them, were unable to take advantage of the good field position resulting from the turnover, turning the ball over on downs after four plays.

The Divas gained a first down at their own 38-yard line on their second possession of the game. A nine-yard run on first down, however, was wiped out by a ten-yard holding penalty. The Divas were unable to overcome first-and-20 and were forced to punt three plays later.

Three penalties aided Kansas City on their ensuing drive. A three-yard run on second down would have brought up third and seven, but a Divas offside penalty made it second and five instead. One play later, Kansas City threw an incomplete pass that would have brought up third and 15, but the Divas were flagged for a ten-yard holding penalty, giving the Tribe a first down at midfield.

Kansas City advanced into D.C. territory and faced third and eight at the D.C. 41-yard line. A second offside penalty gave Kansas City five yards, and they converted the third and three play for a first down. But Jay Hodge broke through with a key sack of Kansas City quarterback Jenny Schmidt, forcing a punt to end the drive.

With time running down in the first quarter, the Divas faced second and three from their own 36. Okiima Pickett gained nine yards for a first down near midfield, but the Divas were flagged for holding for the third time in the quarter, pushing them ten yards back to the 28-yard line. Another penalty – the Divas’ eighth of the first quarter alone – preceded an incomplete pass, and the Divas were forced to punt for a second time. After one offensive play for Kansas City, the first quarter concluded scoreless.

The Tribe punted the ball away to the D.C. 27-yard line soon after the second quarter began.  Again, penalties would stifle the Divas offense. A false start put them in a first-and-15 hole to begin the drive. The Divas gained seven yards on their first two plays of the drive, bringing up third and eight, but a 15-yard personal foul penalty on a questionable late hit instead made it third and 23. An incomplete pass led to another Divas punt.

Yet for most of the contest, the Divas defense held firm. The Divas forced a three-and-out from Kansas City and took over possession at their own 28-yard line midway through the second quarter.

The Divas then turned to their star running back, Okiima Pickett. Pickett gained 24 yards in three carries to give the Divas second and one from the Kansas City 46-yard line. An apparent ten-yard run for a first down to the Tribe 36-yard line was nullified by the Divas’ fourth ten-yard holding penalty of the game, and the Divas faced second and 11 back on their own side of the field.

But this time, the Divas offense would not be denied. Two more runs picked up the first down anyway, and Nikki WIlliams made a clutch eight-yard catch on third and four to keep the drive alive. On the next play, Divas quarterback Allyson Hamlin found Shara McNeill open in the end zone, and despite being interfered with, McNeill hauled in the 28-yard toss for the game’s first score. The extra point kick was good, and the Divas led, 7-0, with 6:24 left in the first half.

At this point, all of the momentum was on the Divas’ side of the ball. Kansas City took over at their own 21-yard line at a critical stage in the game. But three major breaks would fall in favor of the Tribe and get the game back to even.

On Kansas City’s first play of the drive, the Tribe ballcarrier fumbled the football, recovering it for a seven-yard loss that would have resulted in a difficult second-and-17 situation deep in their own territory. But the Divas were flagged for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for excessive celebration of the near-turnover, giving Kansas City an automatic first down.

On the very next play, Schmidt threw a pass at the 23-yard line that appeared to travel two yards backwards before being tipped by a Kansas City receiver. A Divas linebacker fell on the ball at the Kansas City 27-yard line, recovering the apparent lateral for a fumble and a turnover deep in Kansas City territory. But the officials ruled it a forward pass, allowing the Tribe to continue their drive.

Kansas City made the most of it. On the strength of two long passes, the Tribe drove down to the D.C. 16-yard line. But the D.C. defense held strong and forced Kansas City into a fourth-and-ten situation. The Tribe decided to go for a tying score. Schmidt dropped back to pass, and her toss sailed well wide of her intended receiver, actually bouncing off the helmet of a Divas defensive back playing five yards away from the nearest Kansas City player. It appeared that the D.C. defense had made a critical stop, preserving the Divas’ seven-point lead and giving the ball back to their offense.

Yet the Divas were flagged for their 13th and most costly penalty of the half – a highly questionable offside penalty that gave Kansas City another shot at a fourth-down play. This time, Schmidt did not miss, firing an 11-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-five with 2:35 left in the half. The successful extra point kick knotted the contest at 7-7.

The first half ended moments later with the score tied at intermission. The Divas were flagged for 15 penalties for 118 yards in the first half and had 28 additional yards and two first downs nullified by penalty. The Divas’ penalties also gave Kansas City three automatic first downs and helped sustain the Tribe’s first touchdown drive of the contest.

Kansas City, conversely, was penalized eight times in the first half for 49 yards with just two additional yards nullified by penalty. Only two of Kansas City’s first half penalties were for more than five yards, one of which was for having twelve players on the field. Meanwhile, the Divas suffered seven major penalties of more than five yards, including four holding penalties and three personal foul calls.

Still, the Divas came out of the halftime locker room determined to put the officiating behind them. The Divas recovered a Kansas City onside kick to start the second half and took possession at midfield. Five straight runs by Okiima Pickett put the Divas all the way down at the Tribe’s ten-yard line. Although the drive stalled there, the Divas booted a 27-yard field goal to retake the lead, 10-7, just two and a half minutes into the second half.

Kansas City returned the ensuing kickoff to their own 32-yard line. After a three-yard gain, a second-and-seven pass fell incomplete, seemingly bringing up third and long. But a 15-yard personal foul penalty – the fourth such penalty on the Divas in the game – gave the Tribe a first down at midfield. From there, the vaunted Tribe offense was able to advance down to the D.C. four-yard line, where they had the ball, first and goal.

The D.C. defense stood tall again. This time it was linebacker Alissa Imbragulio who made two big plays. A seven-yard sack of Schmidt on first down pushed Kansas City back away from the D.C. goal line, and Imbragulio was part of a pack of Divas who stuffed a Kansas City run on third and goal for a two-yard loss. Schmidt threw incomplete on fourth down, and the Divas’ offense took over at their own seven-yard line with a three-point lead in hand.

What was expected coming into the game to be a high-scoring shootout was instead turning into a low-scoring defensive struggle. It was becoming apparent that a two-score lead would seem almost insurmountable the way the game was playing out. A touchdown drive would give the Divas a huge advantage in this back-and-forth contest.

On first down from the seven-yard line, the Divas seemingly ripped off a 12-yard run for a first down. But instead, another 10-yard holding call – the Divas’ fifth of the game – put the ball back on the seven-yard line. Undaunted, the Divas picked up the first down anyway on the strength of four straight runs.

After a false start penalty, the Divas faced second-and-13 from their own 18-yard line. Rachelle Pecovsky, who was the MVP of the 2006 national title game won by the Divas, made her mark on this game by ripping off a beautiful 18-yard run for a first down. However, the play was wiped out by a 15-yard personal foul penalty for an alleged block in the back, bringing up a second-and-ten at the D.C. 21-yard line.

Hamlin appeared to complete a 16-yard pass on second down to Donna Wilkinson, which would have been enough for a first down. But the officials ruled that the pass had hit the ground, which brought up third down and ten. The Divas again called Pecovsky’s number, and she responded with an apparent 11-yard run for a first down. But for the second time on the drive, a Divas first down was nullified by penalty. A ten-yard personal foul call on the offense – the Divas’ fourth penalty of the drive and their 20th of the contest – set up third down and 20.

A short run led to a Divas punt, and the punt was poor, rolling to the D.C. 25-yard line. It took Kansas City one play to capitalize on their great field position. Schmidt found receiver Rusty Sowers open for a 25-yard touchdown pass, and the Tribe took their first lead of the game, 14-10, with 3:42 remaining in the third quarter.

Now trailing for the first time in the national championship game, the Divas’ offense tried desperately to respond. The Divas returned the ensuing kickoff to their own 42-yard line, and a five-yard completion brought up second and five. The Divas’ second play of the drive was a five-yard run for an apparent first down on the Kansas City side of the field, but the Divas were penalized ten yards on their sixth holding penalty of the game and forced into a second-and-15 situation.

Pecovsky tried to help get the Divas off the hook, rushing for ten yards on second down and getting the penalty yards back. Faced with third and five, Hamlin dropped back to pass. She found receiver Nikki Williams along the sideline for a six-yard gain and an apparent first down, but the Divas were flagged for having an ineligible player downfield and penalized five yards. For the second consecutive drive, the Divas had two apparent first down plays wiped out by penalty. It again proved too much to overcome, as a third-and-ten pass fell incomplete and forced a Divas punt.

Armed with a four-point lead, the Kansas City offense began moving the ball with confidence. Two long plays advanced the ball to the Divas’ 43-yard line for a first down. The Divas were then penalized 15 yards on a personal foul penalty, their sixth such penalty of the game and their 23rd penalty overall. As the third quarter expired, the Tribe had the ball at the Divas’ 33-yard line and a 14-10 advantage on the scoreboard.

Through three quarters, the Divas had been penalized for 23 infractions resulting in 178 penalty yards. The Divas also had 77 additional yards of offense and six first downs wiped out by penalty. For comparison’s sake, the NFL record for most penalties in any game is 22, one fewer than the Divas had already been assessed in just three quarters of play in women’s football’s national title game.

The Kansas City Tribe, on the other hand, had sustained just ten penalties for 59 yards with only four additional yards nullified by penalty. Only two of Kansas City’s penalties cost them more than five yards, while the Divas had been whistled for 11 such infractions.

Despite being called for 23 penalties, the Divas somehow still had a chance to win the game.  The Divas’ defense opened the fourth quarter by once again making a key play. Unique McKinney fell on a lateral pass from Schmidt at the D.C. 44-yard line, a fumble recovery that gave the Divas offense great field position less than a minute into the final period.

Behind the running of Okiima Pickett and Rachelle Pecovsky, the Divas drove into Kansas City territory. The Divas faced a critical fourth-and-three play at the Kansas City 25-yard line. Pecovsky came through in the clutch, rushing for a huge 12-yard gain and a first down at the Kansas City 13-yard line. A two-yard gain brought up second and eight, but it was then that calamity struck for the Divas offense.

Divas running back Tiffany Matthews took the ball and rushed down to the Kansas City four-yard line, one yard short of a first down. While struggling to pick up the critical first down, Matthews fumbled the ball, and the Tribe’s Rusty Sowers fell on the ball at the Kansas City seven-yard line with 9:49 remaining in the contest. The fumble recovery preserved the Tribe’s four-point lead and turned the Divas back after being just four yards away from retaking the lead in the game.

Whether it was the momentum-changing fumble or the record 23 penalties the Divas had endured to that point, the Divas’ defense – which had been so solid for most of the game – could hold no longer. The Tribe offense put together their best drive of the contest, a masterful 93-yard charge that ended with a Schmidt two-yard quarterback draw into the end zone. Schmidt’s decisive touchdown gave Kansas City an insurmountable 21-10 lead with just 4:32 left in the game.

The Divas did not go quietly, recovering the ensuing onside kick and driving 46 yards to the end zone. The drive was capped by Pecovsky’s four-yard scoring run, and Pecovsky then rushed for the two-point conversion, putting the Divas behind, 21-18, with 2:44 left to play.

But the Tribe recovered the Divas’ onside kick and quickly began to bleed the clock dry. On third and 14 with a minute to play, Schmidt threw a pass which lost one yard, apparently bringing up fourth down. But the Divas were flagged for a 15-yard facemask penalty – shockingly, their only penalty of the fourth quarter but their 24th of the contest – which gave Kansas City a first down and clinched the national championship for the Tribe.

After the game, no one on the D.C. Divas’ side of the field wanted to address the 24 penalties for 193 yards (including 23 for 178 yards in the first three quarters) called against the Divas. “I didn’t argue any of the calls,” the Divas’ head coach said. “Officiating, like weather and injuries, are part of the game, and I’ll never use that as an excuse.”

Moreover, the Divas did not want to take anything away from the great effort put forth by the Kansas City Tribe, the 2009 national champions who played a spirited game. “Obviously, this is not the way we wanted the season to end,” said General Manager Rich Daniel. “But we’re proud of the fact that we’re Eastern Conference champions for 2009. We would like to congratulate the Tribe on winning the IWFL title.”

Yet the controversy surrounding this contest will not subside quickly. The Divas’ journey to the national title game was also controversial. The Divas finished the regular season ranked #1 in the Massey Ratings, which led them to believe that they had clinched home field advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.  But after a tough conference semifinal victory over the Pittsburgh Passion, the Divas dropped to #2 in the updated rankings behind the Boston Militia. As the Divas prepared to host the Eastern Conference title game, the league decreed that the Divas would have to travel to Boston for the conference championship instead, leaving the team scrambling at the last minute to make arrangements for a road game after being convinced they had already secured home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The rosters for tomorrow’s IWFL All-Star game were announced a few weeks ago, and for the most part, the Divas will be notably absent. The Divas had just five players named to the 2009 All-Star team, despite a perfect 8-0 regular season record. The Boston Militia and Atlanta Xplosion each had 13 all-stars, while the Houston Energy – who finished the season 2-6 – had six. Even the Tier II Manchester Freedom and Erie Illusion had more all-stars than the Divas with six apiece.

The Divas also had just one player (Jay Hodge) named as a first team All-American by the IWFL this season. The Militia led the league with 12 such honorees, and the 4-4 New York Sharks had nine. The 3-5 Baltimore Nighthawks, a team the Divas defeated twice in the regular season by a combined score of 103-14, had five. The Erie Illusion and Central PA Vipers, who finished with a 2-6 record against a Tier II schedule, each had two apiece. The 8-0 Divas had as many first team All-Americans as the 1-7 Connecticut Crushers.

Now the Divas go into the offseason having lost the national championship game after being whistled for 24 penalties, a number which would have set an NFL record if it happened in a game in the men’s league. Clearly, this was not the ending the Divas had envisioned to a magical 2009 season.

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