The Women’s Premier League (WPL) held its penultimate round of regular-season games last weekend, and it was spectacular as per usual. There were two single-digit decisions, and one match was decided on the final play of the game. The Colorado Gray Wolves are the first to 12 games and head into their bye week with the No. 2 spot in the standings. It’s a tenuous hold, as this Saturday’s games have the power to reshuffle teams 2-4.
Remember that the top two teams in the standings host their respective semifinals on Oct. 7, and heading into Week 13, the Gray Wolves, Beantown and New York are all vying for that spot (Berkeley already has the No. 1 seed). Those three teams needed to win their Sept. 16 games, ideally with a bonus point, to stay in the running.
The Gray Wolves got the job done and beat the visiting TC Amazons 81-5. Emily Colesworthy (2), Dee Nash (2), KB Broughton, Denali Graham, Carson Hann, Kate Herren, Jojo Kitlinski, Kelsie O’Brien, Justine Perl, Gianna Solomon and Juliann Tordonato scored tries, while Perl (5), Hannah Tennant (2) and Nash kicked conversions. The Zons got their try from Lynn Kleyer in minute 64.
So ends Colorado’s regular season. In order for the Gray Wolves to secure home-field advantage for its semifinal, the team needs Berkeley to beat Beantown this Saturday.
Beantown hosted Life West last Saturday, and the NorCal side used the opportunity to spread that WPL experience to its depth. The visitors struck first, as the forwards worked on the try line and dove over from in close. Leti Hingano kicked the conversion for a 7-0 lead early on.
The score exchanges continued from there. The Beantown pack – which was notably missing four players for the impending USA tour to Ireland – turned over a Life West scrum. Quick tap from a penalty, forward phases, then ball wide to fullback Rachael Harkavy for the try, which Amanda Schweitzer converted, 7-all.
Miri Marawa, now at scrumhalf after a good amount of time on the wing, danced around the defense for a centered try. Leila Opeti converted to put the Trix up 14-7 until minute 23. A Beantown penalty kick to touch stayed in-bounds and Life West dotted down the ball in-goal. The goal-line drop went to Alex Pipkin, who stepped three defenders for a 20-meter try. Life West took a 14-12 lead into the break.
Beantown put down back-to-back tries from Emma Santosuosso and Claire Stingley, and Schweitzer added a conversion: 24-14 with 15 minutes to play. With the bonus point in hand, Beantown just needed to maintain, but the Trix made it difficult. Opeti scored in minute 69, but the defense withstood the final push: 24-19 the final.
Meanwhile, a cracker of a match played out in Moraga, Calif. New York had perhaps the toughest challenge of the weekend – winning on the road against the league leader – but the orange-and-blue were absolutely up for it. The first 10 minutes were spent mostly in Berkeley’s end and a powerful scrum kept the home side under pressure. However, the All Blues defense was resolute and it wasn’t until New York center Dana Alimena aimed a kick to the corner that some space was realized. Wing Tee Granby was on the chase and dotted down the game’s first try. Fullback Jetta Owen’s conversion attempt from the sideline hit the post: 5-0 after 12 minutes.
“For New York, I personally played with them, so it’s a little bit different,” Berkeley reserve flyhalf Kristen Siano said of any unique challenges that New York poses. “For New York in general, they’re just trying to get to #2 [in the standings], so this was a must-win game for them and they put a lot of hard pressure on us.”
New York was playing with the wind in the first half and the visitors did well to work that advantage in the kicking game. One Owens punt hit the ground and dribbled a bit, allowing Alimena to fly up on the chase and make the tackle near Berkeley’s 22. New York blocked an attempted clear, and No. 8 Adriana Castillo recovered for the dive-over try. Owens converted for the 12-0 lead after 25 minutes.
Berkeley mounted pressure toward the end of the half. Siano booted a penalty to midfield to set up an attacking lineout. From the driving maul, No. 8 Roz Okpara peeled off the back and beat the sideline defense for a centered try, which Siano converted: 12-7. The score afforded momentum to the home side and a blocked kick set up another scoring opportunity before the break, but New York’s defense held.
“We’re just introducing a lot of new things and giving opportunity to a lot of players,” Siano said of the team’s objectives. “It’s allowing some people to rest and allowing some people to really step up. We’re trying to work on our finer things so that when we get to semifinals and finals, it’s no longer new stuff we’re working on.”
The All Blues had the wind in the second half and with Siano at 10, the kicking game took more life. One such kick put the game on New York’s two meter, and although the All Blues lost the lineout, a penalty directly in front of the posts followed. Siano lined up the kick for three points, and Berkeley closed to 12-10.
A big New York breakaway put the game in Berkeley’s end, and then a series of penalties allowed the visitors to sustain the attack. After some work at the line, hooker Caoimhe O’Sullivan Roche powered in for the try, which Owens converted, 19-10 New York.
Berkeley scored next, but only after a wild series in New York’s 22. Errant lineouts and quick turnovers produced a bit of a frenzy, but solid connection between Siano, Cassandra Tong (who was massive on defense) and Evan Hoese got Berkeley close to the line. A penalty set up a Berkeley scrum, and Okpara went weak off the back. The recycle moved to fullback Michelle Hong for the try, which Siano converted: 19-17 to New York.
With approximately 10 minutes to play, Siano added a penalty kick from 20 meters out. The opportunity evolved after a Hoese line-break from midfield and marked Berkeley’s first lead of the game: 20-19.
New York wasn’t done. Building from a penalty, the visitors worked phases left and right. Alimena cleaned up a bouncing pass, hit Owens out the back, and the fullback found WPL debutant Madhia Parker. The flyer cut back inside and then darted out wide to evade the sliding defense for the try. The sidelines erupted as Owens made the conversion, 26-20 to New York.
There were a couple of turnovers after the restart, but then Berkeley drew a penalty that set up a lineout inside New York’s 22. A knock-on in the backs handed the ball back to New York for a scrum. The All Blues put on a massive shove, allowing reserve scrumhalf Shelby Lin to smother the outlet pass. Allison Martin was so hungry for the ball, wrestled for it, and a crucial clear from Lin secured possession for Berkeley. Forwards went to work, punching off the ruck, and Siano got sucked into what was building toward the line.
“I got into a ruck and Shelby yelled at me, ‘Get up,’” Siano laughed. “I got up, and then we did what we do. I’ve played with her for 5, 6 years now.”
Lin moved the ball to Siano, who was set up a little wider from the pile, and angled toward a gap for the dive-over try. At this point, New York led 26-25, so the impending conversion, which was approximately 10 meters off center, would be the difference.
“I don’t think the team realized that it was the last play, but I asked the ref and knew we had 10 seconds,” Siano said. “It’s never easy, but [the kick] was in an easy area. You just got to take a breath.”
Siano slotted it, and then the final whistle sounded: 27-26 Berkeley.
“Close it to,” Siano said of whether she’s kicked a late, game-winning conversion before. “2017 nationals when we [New York] won by a point.
“But I’m incredibly proud of our defense; that’s what won us this game,” Siano added. “We weren’t top form in offense but our forwards put in a hell of a shift. Everyone stuck their tackles. And I don’t think it was an individual effort. I think it was a team effort. We were spacing out really well and launching really hard.”
New York got two bonus points in the loss, but third is the highest the team can finish in the final standings, meaning a road trip for the semifinals.
WEEK 14 MATCHES: SEPT 23
New York @ TC Amazons
Life West @ Chicago North Shore
Beantown @ Berkeley