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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

D.C. Divas Survive Late New York Rally, Hold Off Sharks, 21-18


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Neal Rozendaal
New York, NY – The D.C. Divas came into Saturday night as the winningest team in women’s football history, one win ahead of the New York Sharks. The Divas will retain that title for a few more weeks at least…but the Sharks certainly made them earn it.
The D.C. Divas built an early 21-0 lead and then survived 18 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to stave off the New York Sharks by a 21-18 final score. The Divas improved to 122-36 in franchise history, while the Sharks dropped to 120-40 after this battle between two of the most storied teams in women’s football.
The game could not have started better for the Divas (2-0). The Divas elected to kick off, and New York fielded the kick at the five-yard line. As the punt returner tried to make a play, Genaya Davis forced a fumble. The ball bounded into the end zone and Whitney Simms recovered it for a Divas touchdown. Stephanie Nealis kicked the extra point, and the Divas led, 7-0, just seconds into the game.
The Divas’ defense then went to work, forcing a three and out on New York’s first offensive possession before a short Sharks punt gave the Divas the ball at the New York 20-yard line. But the Divas were only able to gain one yard in three plays, and a 36-yard field goal attempt by Nealis came up short of the crossbar to keep the Divas’ lead at seven points.
The Sharks (1-1) drove the ball deep into D.C. territory on their next possession. The Divas’ defense eventually stiffened, however, stopping the Sharks two yards short of a first down on fourth and long at the D.C. 20-yard line.
The Divas were unable to do anything offensively, and after a punt to their own 45-yard line, the Sharks were on the march again. They drove into the D.C. red zone, but on third and long, the Divas’ defense made New York pay. Safi Mojidi picked off a pass by New York quarterback Karen Mulligan, and with the help of several nice blocks, Mojidi returned the interception 94 yards for a touchdown as time expired in the first half. Nealis’ extra point kick put the Divas in front, 14-0, after one quarter of play.
The Divas continued their strong play as the second quarter began. Following a three and out by the Sharks, D’Ajah Scott made an electrifying punt return all the way down to the New York 10-yard line. Okiima Pickett punched the ball over the goal line from two yards out, and her first score of the year gave D.C. a 21-0 advantage early in the second quarter.
New York would threaten on their next drive, however. Mulligan found a receiver behind the Divas’ defense and completed a pass down to the D.C. 13-yard line. But for the second week in a row, Trigger McNair – a 19-year veteran of the game – intercepted a pass deep in D.C. territory to stave off the scoring threat.
The Divas’ offense responded with a nice drive to midfield before being forced to punt. The Sharks charged through and blocked the punt, giving them possession at midfield. The Sharks and Divas exchanged punts to end the first half, and the Divas went to intermission on top, 21-0.
New York kicked off to the D.C. 21-yard line to start the second half, and incredibly, the entire third quarter would be played inside the Divas’ 30-yard line. Just as remarkably, the stout Divas defense would allow New York no points in the third quarter despite playing 15 minutes within thirty yards of the D.C. goal line.
The Divas gained just seven yards in three plays to start the third quarter, and D.C. decided to go for it on their own 28-yard line. The gamble didn’t pay off, however; a fourth-down pass fell incomplete and the Sharks were set up with great field position.
The D.C. defense rose to the occasion. After New York gained a first and goal at the D.C. four-yard line, Dex Walker recovered a Sharks fumble to halt the Sharks’ drive. But the Divas were unable to advance the ball from the shadow of their own end zone, and a bad snap on the ensuing punt led to New York taking over at the D.C. four-yard line.
The defense responded, forcing an incomplete pass from Mulligan on fourth and goal. But once again, the offense could not pick up a first down, and another bad snap on a punt attempt gave the Sharks another chance at the D.C. 15.
The Divas then made yet another ferocious defensive stand. Mulligan threw an incomplete pass in the end zone on fourth down, but the Divas were flagged for pass interference, giving the Sharks first and goal from the three-yard line. The defense held strong again, and on fourth down, Mulligan once again threw incomplete in the end zone. But the Divas were again tagged with a fourth-down penalty, giving the Sharks yet another first down at the three-yard line.
The D.C. defense stopped the Sharks on three straight plays, bringing up fourth and goal as time expired in the third quarter. On the first play of the final period, Mulligan threw incomplete in the end zone, and this time, there were no flags. The Divas turned the Sharks back on 12 successive plays at their goal line and the Divas took over at their own two-yard line.
The offense still could not find any rhythm deep in their own territory. After two straight failed punt plays, the Divas decided to try a surprise fake punt at their own eight-yard line. But the pass fell incomplete, and the Sharks once again had first and goal, this time at the D.C. 8.
The Sharks cashed in with their first score of the game in the most improbable way possible. Mulligan threw a pass that ricocheted off of her intended receiver and up into the air. New York offensive lineman Dayna Moneta snatched the ball out of the air and ran it into the end zone for New York’s first touchdown. After a failed extra point run, the Divas led, 21-6, early in the fourth quarter.
On the ensuing drive, the Divas’ offense finally had some decent field position for the first time in the second half. But Kendra Bates – who entered the game in relief of Amanda Congialdi in the second half – threw an incomplete pass on fourth down at the New York 43-yard line to turn the ball over on downs.
The Divas’ defense, which had been dominant for so much of the game, then had its biggest lapse of the contest. On the very next play, Sharks wide receiver Brilynn Fields slipped behind the Divas’ defense, and Mulligan hit her for a 57-yard touchdown. Although the two-point conversion pass was incomplete, the Divas’ lead had shrunk to 21-12 with eight and a half minutes remaining in the contest.
The Divas worked to bleed the clock, driving into the New York red zone before turning the ball over on downs at the New York 16-yard line. The two teams then traded possessions in Sharks territory, further running the clock down as the Divas clung to a nine-point lead.
With Mulligan at the controls, the Sharks made one last rally against the Divas’ defense. New York took advantage of a few completed passes and a couple of timely D.C. penalties to drive the ball down the field, and Mulligan threw a 12-yard touchdown strike with less than a minute remaining in the game.
The two-point conversion pass was incomplete, but shockingly, the Sharks had scored 18 unanswered points in the fourth quarter and cut the Divas’ seemingly comfortable lead after three quarters to 21-18 with under a minute to play. The Sharks’ onside kick attempt was unsuccessful, however, and the Divas ran out the clock to preserve a hard-fought 21-18 victory over the New York Sharks.
The Divas return to action on April 22 for their 2017 home opener against their archrivals, the Boston Renegades.

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