Written by and Photo Credit: Jackie Finlan
The Women’s Premier League (WPL) is back from summer break, and teams celebrated the second half of the season with a slate of top-notch contests. Two matches were lead-changing affairs decided by single digits, and the third afforded one team its first WPL win of 2023. It’s good to be back!
New York (4-2-2) and Life West (2-6) met for their rematch on San Francisco’s Treasure Island. When the squads last saw each other – April 23 – the game went 30-22 in New York’s favor, so there was no surprise when the teams traded leads five times on Saturday. The visitors held the early advantage, keeping the game in Life West’s end for approximately 15 minutes, but the defense held.
Life West pickup Sophie Pyrz stepped into scrumhalf and peeled off the back of a scrum to get some good go-forward. Lock Bailey Johnson went quick from a penalty to keep the defense scrambling, and centers Rachel Pau’u and Liz Tafuna connected through traffic before finding Miri Marawa. The wing was magic on the sideline – all day long – and weaved 50 meters to the try line. Fullback Leti Hingano added the extras for the 7-0 lead after 20 minutes.
New York had the wind and some important kicks to space not only relieved pressure but helped set up scoring opportunities. Fullback Jetta Owens booted one such ball downfield, advantageous penalties followed, and then wide ball found center Sophie Frick for a score (7-5). And then just before the halftime whistle, Dana Alimena stymied a Life West attack with a not-releasing penalty and set into motion a series that ended with No. 8 Adriana Castillo over the try line. Wing Allysa O’Neill converted for the 12-7 halftime lead.
Really fast phases and perhaps some Life West fatigue on defense saw Castillo score a second try, and Owens knocked over the difficult conversion, 19-7 to New York. But then Life West answered with two quick scores that overturned the lead. Marawa, again, got hands on the ball and shook the sideline defense for a 60-meter try, and then reserve Nate Savu powered over from close range. Hingano and Pyrz added the conversions, and the home side was back in the lead: 21-19.
“During the back-and-forth, we had to keep telling each other to just stay in control, stay composed and stay connected,” New York co-captain Tiana Granby said. “Our big focus is defense. We know we can play offense. We have some good ball-handlers and playmakers, so as long as we shut them down on defense, we know we can turn that ball over, play offense, and score tries – like we did.”
At one point, Life West struggled to get out of its 22 – a consequence of some passing errors but also a hungry New York defense. A yellow card didn’t help Life West, and eventually, Granby capitalized with a lead-changing try: 24-21, New York.
Minutes later there was a turnover on the sideline and – you guessed it – the ball found Marawa for another fast try, 26-24, Life West. There were three minutes to play, and New York used them for a final score. Building off of penalties, the visitors rallied for one more try through reserve Jessie Ruiz: 29-26 to New York.
“Not where we left off, but half-a-step ahead,” Granby said of gains since the spring. “I think a lot of people took the [summer] break very seriously, for whatever they needed, to come back and really go up the next level in the second half.”
Both teams earned bonus points for tries, and Life West also picked up a standings point for the fewer-than-seven-points loss. The Gladiatrix have a league-leading 11 bonus points across eight games.
“This year is sort of a team-building year, especially with the girls who have transferred from other teams and have never played with us,” said Pau’u. “There’s a lot of potential, it’s more so just finding the connection with the girls who have come to play with us this WPL season and continuing to find each other’s strengths.”
“Life West weren’t quite clicking,” USA Women’s National Team interim head coach Richard Ashfield said from the sidelines. “They were trying some really nice stuff and the few times they did click they looked really impressive. Their bench, when they came on in the second half, brought some really nice energy – especially at the end, when they really started fighting back and scored. … There’s a lot of very talented, young players there that, if they can gel, will be very exciting.”
Hours later, Berkeley (7-0-1) and Colorado Gray Wolves (4-3-1) took to Infinity Park’s turf pitch in Glendale, Colo. These two teams also played to an eight-point decision in Week 2, but the Gray Wolves were eager to get that one back on Saturday. In the middle of the first half, loose forwards Carson Hann and Rachel Ehrecke – fresh off a pro season with DMP Sharks in England – scored for the home side. Flyhalf Hannah Tennant kicked the first of four conversions for the 12-0 lead.
Berkeley answered before the break, sending wings Laura Thacker and Naomi Carrillo into the try zone, and then carried that energy into the second half. Lock Allison Byrne and No. 8 Ros Okpara dotted down, and with center Olivia Bernadel-Huey’s four conversions, the Californians led 28-12.
Time and time again, this WPL season has checked teams’ grit and their ability to rally, and Colorado answered the call. Three-straight tries from reserve prop Laura LaVigne, recent Sale Shark Jojo Kitlinski and Ehrecke closed the gap, and Tennant’s three conversions put the Gray Wolves ahead 33-28. It was a massive effort, but there were still 12 minutes to play.
One more try made its way onto the scoreboard, and it came after Berkeley reserve Kristen Siano picked off a pass and ran it back for five. With the game all tied up at 33, Bernadel-Huey ended a perfect day off the tee with a fifth conversion and 35-33 win against Colorado.
“We finished the spring part of the season with a win at Beantown. That was really awesome,” Bernadel-Huey bridged the spring and fall competition blocks. “And I still feel like we’re building, which is really exciting. So to finish [the spring on a win and feel like there’s still so much we can do in the second half, you really can’t ask to be in a better place going into the fall. And through conversations I’ve had, I think that feeling is shared by a lot of teammates. It feels good.”
On Sunday, Chicago North Shore (1-7) traveled to the TC Amazons (1-6) looking to repeat its April 23 win (31-19) on the road, but it was always going to be a tough ask. North Shore was double-booked last weekend as the only WPL club to enter a side in the USA Club 7s National Championship, which occurred in Cottage Grove, Wis. [North Shore finished 4th overall at 7s nationals]. So while the player pool was stretched thin last week, it was also an opportunity to introduce 10 players to the WPL.
Meanwhile, the Amazons built all kinds of good momentum for the fall, as the squad banked its first win of the season, and at home. Wing Averi Mitchell-Brown led the league in points scored last weekend, finishing five tries in the 44-0 win. Scrumhalf Lynn Kleyer, center Kelsey Coley and reserve Kathryn Johnson also scored tries, and Johnson kicked two conversions.
“With so many new players, we just don’t know each other very well,” Amazons captain Brooke Doerscher reflected on the team’s summer activity. “We haven’t had time to have a social life but now with the summer break, we’ve been able to actually hang out with each other, and that is actually helping a lot on the field.
“There were moments in every single game we played [in the spring], where it was 20 minutes, back and forth, really good rugby,” the flanker looked ahead. “We just want to carry that this fall and not just have 10-20 minutes of really great moments, but we want 40-60 minutes of great moments.”
The action continues this Saturday, Aug. 19:
Life West @ TC Amazons
Colorado Gray Wolves @ Chicago North Shore
Beantown @ New York