by Neal Rozendaal, VP Communications, D.C. Divas
Washington, DC – The D.C. Divas have a lot to play for as they close their 2017 regular season on the road against the Atlanta Phoenix. A victory would clinch a winning season for the Divas and guarantee them a home game in the first round of the upcoming Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) playoffs. But perhaps most importantly, the Divas look to ride three straight victories into those playoffs as they begin their quest for a third straight national championship.
The Divas (4-3) won one of their most memorable games in team history Saturday, a thrilling 35-34 overtime victory over the Pittsburgh Passion. The Passion took an early lead less than four minutes into the game, and the Divas trailed Pittsburgh for most of the contest before tying the game with a touchdown with under two minutes remaining in regulation. The Divas then clinched the win when 19-year veteran linebacker Trigger McNair blocked a potential game-tying extra point kick at the end of the first overtime session.
Divas head coach Greg Gaskins missed the game for personal reasons and defensive coordinator Willie Bennett stepped in as the acting head coach. Coach Bennett praised his team’s resolve in the landmark victory.
“For the ladies’ confidence, it was right on time,” Coach Bennett said. “The good thing about the Pittsburgh game is that we battled through it. Our expectation coming into any game is to put ourselves in a position to fight to the end for a win, and that’s what they did. Throughout her illustrious career, Trigger McNair has had many great games, but I know this is one game she’ll take with her the rest of her life.”
Coach Bennett credited the win to a total team effort.
“The best thing about the win over Pittsburgh is that it was a team win more than an individual win by any one player or unit,” Bennett remarked. “The offense is really developing and is exactly where they need to be at this time. Earlier in the year when we were trying to find our offensive identity, it was tough for us defensively in some games. But in this game against Pittsburgh, we weren’t playing well at all defensively early in the game, so we needed the offense to give us that spark. They came through for us and made enough plays to keep us in the game just long enough for the defense to come around. When we finally did make a play or two on the defensive side of the ball, we were right back in the game, and we were able to overcome and get the win.”
Bennett sees the Divas’ offense starting to click at just the right time.
“I’ve been watching the offense all year from the defensive side, and I knew coming into this season that the offense was going to take some time to find their identity,” Coach Bennett observed. “We are inexperienced at the quarterback position, the wide receiver position, in places along the offensive line, and really all over the offensive side of the ball. But I’ve been able to watch our offense grow up in football over the last several weeks. Even in our losses, you could see them growing up with every play and developing confidence in each other.”
“We’ve got some exciting things building on the offensive side of the ball,” Bennett continued. “D’Ajah Scott is coming into her own and learning the running back position, and she’s a natural. She’s a special talent. Kentrina Wilson is as good a wide receiver as there is in women’s football; every week she is providing great leadership and finding her niche within this offense. Now the offensive line is starting to gel and play as a unit, and that’s going to be key for us down the stretch. I tell the team all the time that we don’t need to peak until June and July, and I think we’re starting to on offense. That’s the exciting part.”
Defensively, the Divas gave up 21 points to the high-powered Passion offense in the first half, and Coach Bennett kept his defense out on the field at halftime to walk them through the defensive game plan. The adjustments worked, as the defense surrendered just one touchdown in the second half while the Divas mounted their comeback.
“That was the key at halftime, walking them through where mistakes were being made,” Bennett said. “The players had some questions about how to defend against certain formations and plays, and they were able to verbalize what was happening out there that was leading to our miscues. That communication was key, because then I could help them overcome those mistakes and put them in a better position to succeed. That’s what we do on defense. It’s not just me calling the plays; it’s us working together to figure out what best fits what’s going on out on the field. I give them the freedom to tell me what they see happening on the field so I can help them make the necessary adjustments to figure this out.”
As much as the offense is developing, Coach Bennett sees a defense that continues to grow as well.
“The key to our defense right now is that we’re overcoming some injuries and getting healthier at key positions each week,” Bennett said. “At the same time, the younger players are getting a lot of experience. That’s the exciting part, watching some younger players develop and fill positions they have never played before. It’s exciting to me because that’s my motto: I want to teach. It’s not about wins and losses all the time; it’s about teaching women the game and helping them understand the game, no matter what position they’re playing. And that makes us a stronger team, because we have some players right now playing different positions than what they started the year playing. But it doesn’t matter…they are still able to be effective because they learned the responsibilities of every position at the beginning of the year, so they are able to fill in wherever we need them.”
The Divas hope to build on the momentum of their current two-game winning streak as they conclude the 2017 regular season on the road against the tough Atlanta Phoenix. The Phoenix (6-1) are the third-highest scoring team in the WFA, averaging over 50 points per game offensively. Their potent offense is led by Ronkia Toombs, whose 799 rushing yards on the season ranks fifth in the league.
“Offensively, Atlanta’s going to run the ball. They’re going to run it right at you, and they want to kind of bully you in a way with their running game,” Coach Bennett noted. “Toombs is a really good running back…she runs hard and powerfully. Atlanta tries to put their strength, which is downhill running, against any weakness you may have in confronting those runners coming right at you. That means they’re going to put power on power with their running game against our front seven.”
“On the defensive side of the ball, they bring a lot of pressure,” Bennett observed. “Amanda [Congialdi], the running backs, and the receiving corps need to be ready for that, because if they are, they’ll have opportunities to take advantage of the one-on-one matchups that will result if they decide to bring that much pressure. Overall, the style of football Atlanta wants to play is the same style we’ve been known for, so it’s going to be a good, physical game.”
As the calendar turns to June, the stakes are high for the D.C. Divas’ final regular season game. A win over Atlanta would secure a home playoff game for the Divas on June 10, giving the team one final chance to play in front of the home fans. It would also assure the 4-3 Divas of their 15th winning season in the last 16 years, a fact not lost on Coach Bennett.
“The D.C. Divas have a great tradition of winning, and having a winning season is an expectation for us every year,” Bennett said. “We had a tough patch there in the middle of this season, losing three hard-fought games. But it taught us lessons and grew us up in some ways, and it’s going to help us when we go through our playoff run. Even with that tough stretch, it’s good to know that we still have a chance to finish the year with a winning season if we can beat Atlanta.”
Although the game against Atlanta is technically the Divas’ regular season finale, Coach Bennett has already put his team in a playoff mindset.
“The way we look at this game is that we need to continue to build toward the playoffs,” Bennett concluded. “It’s already the playoffs right now as far as we’re concerned; we feel our playoffs started last week, and that’s how we are approaching this game. We know that Pittsburgh and Atlanta will be in the playoffs just like we are, so we know that to win the Eastern Conference and have a shot at another championship, we’re going to have to go through these same types of teams we’re facing down the stretch of our season. Atlanta’s exactly the type of team we might see in the playoffs, so this is a big game for us. We got our first win against a Division I team last week against Pittsburgh, and we’re going to have to build on that momentum on Saturday.”