Written by and picture credit: Jackie Finlan 
Week 7 of the Women’s Premier League (WPL) saw two of three games proceed as scheduled. The Colorado Gray Wolves were meant to travel to New York, but the wildfires in Canada produced unplayable air-quality conditions. The game will not be rescheduled and is recorded as a
tie in the standings.


The Chicago North Shore vs. Beantown game, however, was played in Boston, and the home side triumphed in a 64-0 win. Backs captain and flyhalf Amanda Schweitzer led with 19 points on a try and seven conversions. Yeja Dunn moved from the back row to the front row and scored two tries, while flanker Gen Quirion, No. 8 Hallie Taufoou, inside center Jenni Laferriere, wings Emma Santosuosso and Erin Wholey, and reserves Jenna Clukey and Kianna Mahony also dotted down.


Undefeated Beantown will close out the first half of the season against Berkeley this Saturday, June 17. The two teams have not yet faced each other in 2023, and the Boston fixture is a rematch of the 2022 national championship.


The All Blues are also undefeated but recorded a tie against New York in week four. That game provided important insight into personnel, a lesson that continued into last Saturday’s match against Life West. 


“We’ve been talking a little bit about our game management and getting on the same page in terms of what decisions we want to make and to not rely on one person too much,” Berkeley head coach Hannah Stolba said. “It’s something we noticed against New York. We had a lot of ‘young’ voices on the field at the end of the game. It doesn’t mean we’re going to change what we’re doing. We still want to empower those players and still have them make choices at the end of the game.


“We’re still finding the pieces and what fits for who comes on when and in what game, and who starts when and what game, because it isn’t the same every time,” the coach added. “We have a team of 30+ that I get to pull from. … Some of it is recognizing if someone is deer-in-the-headlights at the end of the game, then maybe they’re a better starter.”


Both Life West and Berkeley moved some pieces around for their rematch, which is expected given the teams’ familiarity with each other. Traditionally a reserve, Roz Okpara started at No. 8 and kept the physicality quotient at a premium. Life West’s Siale Alatini and Rachel Pau’u moved from No. 8 and flyhalf, respectively, and were a fun center duo for the Gladiatrix.


“We came out really strong against Life West the first time we played them,” Stolba recalled the 29-27 decision in Week 1. “Those first 20 minutes were just blistering, and I think that’s what set the pace for us [Saturday]. We wanted to do that again, but just manage it a little bit better.”


The opening four minutes were spent in Life West’s end. After a held-up try, the All Blues reset with a five-meter scrum and the pack went to work punching at the line. One pass off the ruck, and flyhalf Kristen Siano bulled over the line for the opening try. Center Olivia Bernadel-Huey kicked the extras for the 7-0 lead. 


Eight minutes later, Life West was in good scoring position and built to the Berkeley five meter, but a patient defense drew a not-releasing penalty to quell that immediate threat. The Gladiatrix did struggle with ball retention and connection, but in the middle of the half, Berkeley penalties dulled the impact of these turnovers. Life West had the opportunity to build another attacking sequence in good territory, but a penalty kick to touch stayed in-bounds and immediately worked to wing Evan Hoese on the opposite side of the pitch. The quick counter-attack culminated with a close-range ruck and prop Abby Vogel picking to the weak side for the score, 12-0.


Two quick tries followed. Life West lost the ball in the tackle and Vogel was there for the pickup. The prop powered forward and then ball swung wide to Hoese, who cut hard against the defense to score the first of three tries. Shortly afterward, a Life West pass hit the ground, the Berkeley defense swarmed and blocked a hurried kick on the sideline. The teams furiously exchanged possession, and then flanker Hope Cooper broke free for Berkeley’s bonus-point try: 22-0 into the break.


Life West outscored Berkeley in the second half, and much of the action occurred in the final 15 minutes of the match. Shortly after kickoff, the Gladiatrix earned a scrum penalty and built to the Berkeley try line. Alatini crossed for a try four minutes in, and scrumhalf Aimee Ramos converted: 22-7.


The Trix had the momentum and the All Blues got into penalty trouble. A blocked Berkeley kick skittered across the pitch and into the wing’s arms. Life West ran the ball from one sideline to the other, but then a loose pass found Hoese for a fast try in the corner: 27-7.


Allison Byrne took the restart and made nice ground up the middle. Siano then cleared to Life West’s end, and the return kick went off the side of the boot. Hoese again recovered the ball in favorable territory and returned it for a third try, which Bernadel-Huey converted (34-7). Hoese did an excellent job punishing untidy ball.


Berkeley incurred a high-tackle penalty and yellow card in the middle of the second half, but the All Blues were able to add another try despite being down. The All Blues moved the ball across the pitch in a flat line, and then Bernadel-Huey and reserve Mariko Moore teamed up for a fun, fast 2-v-1 along the sideline. After several passes back and forth, the center dotted down and reserve Kat Clark converted: 41-7.


During the final 15 minutes, Life West scored three tries. Moore nearly scored a try if it weren’t for a forward finishing pass, and the Gladiatrix made use of the good fortune. Building from a free kick at the scrum, fullback Leti Hingano broke away and swerved around the open-field defense. The ever-slippery Miri Marawa, who was now playing scrumhalf, scored the try and reserve Megan Hippili converted, 41-14.


Marawa went for a big fending run off the restart, and teammates followed with big hits that really fired up the squad. The ball moved to Pau’u, who worked the outside defense perfectly, then planted a fend to connect with Hingano for the try. Hippili converted: 41-21.


The Berkeley penalties were piling up and the team took a second yellow card in the waning minutes. Life West kept pushing and were rewarded with a try through hard-crashing prop Molly Shamieh. The conversion fell short but the bonus point was secured: 41-26 the final.


“Some of that is that mentality to not give an inch even if you’re up a lot of points,” Stolba said of the fourth-quarter shift. “We’ve got to have that attacking mentality all the time even if we’re on defense. It’s something we’re working on. … Evan said historically the All Blues were a ‘last 20 minutes of the game’ kind of team. We’ve flipped the switch and we’re doing what we need to for 60 minutes, but it’s whether we can finish that out in the end.”


There were some standout, 80-minute performances that Stolba was eager to highlight, including flanker Ari Jurkowski, a U.S. Coast Guard officer who is getting underway for four months and who brought a ton of athleticism and work ethic to the pitch. Hooker Paris Hart also had a good day in the front row and around the park, putting in a second-straight 80-minute performance.


“I asked a lot of Elena Edwards in the front row today, because I think their #3 is one of the best props in the country right now,” Stolba closed. “Playing 80 minutes against her all day was a big ask and she stepped up. She managed herself really well and had big moments throughout the game.”


The final three games before the summer break will occur across the next two weekends. As mentioned, Berkeley and Beantown meet on June 17. A four-hour drive south, Twin Cities and New York will face each other. And then on Saturday, June 24, Chicago North Shore will travel to Life West for a Treasure Island game.