Recap vs. Cleveland Fusion – June 10, 2017

D.C. Divas Begin Title Defense, Defeat Cleveland Fusion, 28-6
DC 28, Cleveland 6
By Neal Rozendaal

Springfield, VA – The D.C. Divas closed out their 2017 home schedule with a victory Saturday, leaving them three games away from their goal of a third straight national title.

The D.C. offense scored a touchdown in all four quarters, the defense nearly pitched their second straight shutout, and the D.C. Divas set a franchise record with their eight consecutive playoff win by defeating the Cleveland Fusion, 28-6. The Divas improved to 12-2 all-time in playoff openers, with their 12 victories establishing a new record in women’s football.

The Divas (6-3) struggled on offense for much of the first quarter. A fourth down sack ended the Divas’ first drive, and after a three and out by Cleveland, the Divas threw three straight incomplete passes to bring up fourth and long. Divas punter Emily Grossman made an impressive play on fourth down, breaking a Cleveland tackle before booting a left-footed punt for 20 yards.

The Fusion (5-4) committed their first of five turnovers on their next possession. Veteran linebacker Trigger McNair – who was honored in a pregame ceremony for her 19-year women’s football career, the last 12 of which have been with the Divas – forced a Cleveland fumble. Bisi Robinson scooped up the ball and returned it 18 yards to the Cleveland 27-yard line.

The Divas’ first great scoring chance was squandered on the very next play, when a fumbled snap was recovered by Cleveland linebacker Veronica Rucker. But McNair wasn’t done yet, as she forced a second Fusion fumble a few plays later; although Cleveland recovered the ball, the eight-yard loss on third down brought up a Fusion punt. The punt hit the ground and bounced sharply back upfield, which gave the Divas favorable field position at the Cleveland 25-yard line.

This time the Divas cashed in on the short field. D’Ajah Scott ran 11 yards for the touchdown, putting the Divas on top, 7-0, in the final minute of the first quarter. Scott finished the game with 60 yards on seven carries with a touchdown and an interception on defense.

A big kickoff all the way down to the Cleveland three-yard line put the Fusion in tough field position as the first quarter came to an end. Cleveland came out in the second quarter with a nice drive, however. Aided by a 31-yard reception by longtime standout running back Martina Latessa, the Fusion were able to advance the ball to midfield. The Divas’ defense then stiffened, using two tackles for loss and an incomplete pass to force a punt. Scott made a great 22-yard return of the punt, thanks in part to a jaw-dropping block by linebacker Tia Watkins.

Shaquanda Gainey had two big plays for the Divas on their next drive, running 23 yards on a reverse and catching a 19-yard pass. Gainey narrowly stepped out of bounds at the eight-yard line after her reception, which set up a touchdown pass from quarterback Amanda Congialdi to wide receiver Kentrina Wilson. Wilson’s diving catch in the end zone gave the Divas a 14-0 lead with 9:10 remaining until halftime. Kentrina Wilson had seven receptions on the evening for 102 yards and a touchdown.

The Divas then failed to surprise the Fusion with an onside kick. Cleveland’s recovery followed by consecutive D.C. penalties gave the Fusion their deepest penetration of the game so far to the Divas’ 24-yard line. Cleveland star wide receiver Maria Jackson made an eight-yard catch on third down to set up fourth and two, but the Divas’ defense held firm and forced an incomplete pass on fourth down to regain possession.

With time running down in the first half, the Divas began a long, methodical march into Cleveland territory, with a powerful 23-yard run by Whitney Simms being the key play. Holding a 14-0 lead, Congialdi went for the kill shot with a pass deep down the field for Gainey. But Gainey fell down just as the ball arrived, and Cleveland’s Kanisha Coward intercepted the pass and made a long return of 38 yards back to midfield.

The Fusion picked up one first down and faced third and long in D.C. territory with under a minute to play in the first half. Cleveland’s pass was picked off by D’Ajah Scott, and she made a 38-yard return of her own down to the Cleveland 32 with only 27 seconds remaining in the half. The Divas were unable to capitalize, however; four straight incomplete passes signaled the end of the first half with the Divas leading the Fusion, 14-0.

Cleveland received the kickoff to start the second half and immediately threatened by advancing the ball to midfield. The Divas’ Safi Mojidi – who had an interception go through her hands on Cleveland’s first offensive play of the game – ended the Fusion drive by holding on to her fourth interception of the year at the D.C. 32-yard line.

The defenses for both teams settled in, as the offenses exchanged punts early in the third quarter. The Divas took over at their own 42-yard line following the exchange, and two long runs by Scott set the Divas up with good field position. Shaquanda Gainey took the handoff on a reverse, broke a Fusion tackle at the five-yard line, and powered into the end zone for a 31-yard touchdown run. Gainey’s score extended the Divas’ lead to 21-0 midway through the third quarter. Shaquanda Gainey led the Divas with 64 yards rushing and added a touchdown on just three carries.

The Cleveland Fusion did not leave quietly, battling back with their longest drive of the game. Long passes to Latessa and Coward picked up first downs, and Melissa Torres rumbled for a first and goal at the Divas’ nine-yard line. But after two incomplete passes, McNair made her presence felt again, recovering a fumble at the D.C. three-yard line to end the threat with 2:21 remaining in the third quarter.

The Divas’ offense then slammed the door in dramatic fashion with one of their most dominating drives of the entire season. Congialdi completed a 15-yard pass to Wilson that picked up a first down, got the Divas away from their own goal line, and gobbled up the rest of the third quarter. The Divas led after three quarters, 21-0.

The Divas then began to grind out the clock in the fourth quarter. Faced with a fourth and two at the Cleveland 27-yard line, Congialdi took the ball on a quarterback keeper and rushed for two yards to move the chains. Finally, on the 15th play of the drive, Congialdi found tight end Melissa Washington in the end zone for a two-yard touchdown.

Washington’s catch gave the Divas a commanding 28-0 lead with only 6:47 remaining in the game. The game-clinching drive consumed over ten and a half minutes of game time and put the contest out of reach for the Divas. Congialdi and many of the offensive starters left the game at that point; Amanda Congialdi finished the contest completing 14 of 25 passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns.

Kianna Murphy forced a fumble on the ensuing Cleveland drive, which was recovered by Whitney Simms near midfield with under five minutes remaining on the clock. The Divas reserves finished out the game, and the D.C. defense narrowly failed to pitch their second straight shutout when Cleveland quarterback Rosa Casiano hit Coward with a slant pass for a 28-yard score with only nine seconds left in the game. Coward’s touchdown made it a 28-6 final score in favor of the Divas.

Because the D.C. Divas are the lowest remaining seed still alive in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the victory over Cleveland was the Divas’ final home game of the 2017 season. The Divas will go on the road this Saturday to battle their archrivals, the top-seeded Boston Renegades, in an Eastern Conference semifinal matchup.