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By: Jackie Finlan
Southern California was treated to a fantastic DI club final, as reigning champion Santa Monica took on standings leader Belmont Shore last weekend. The teams had split regular-season games, and the rubber match was to determine which team would represent the region at the DI national quarterfinals in Tucson.
“When we lost to them a month ago it was not under the best circumstances,” said Santa Monica coach Erica Sin. “We thought there were a few questionable things, but it’s always a physical game. They have continually gotten better as we’ve gotten to know them, but we knew we could have beaten them the last time and wanted to prove it this time – we both wanted it.”
Familiar with each other’s attributes, both teams crafted specific game plans to nullify each other’s relative strengths. For Belmont Shore, that meant pressuring Santa Monica’s dynamic backline, in particular outside center Whitney Vance.
“They did a lot of work in trying to shut down Whitney, who is one of our best players, but fortunately we have a lot of talented people in the backline and made the adjustments,” Sin said.
Alex Walker stood out. Strong, athletic, fast, the wing is difficult to take down, and the Back of the Match proved as much while scoring four tries on the day.
Both teams showcased good finishers on the sideline, and Belmont Shore wing Harley Moeller kicked off the scoring five minutes in. Outside center Elizabeth Simmons kicked the first of her three conversions for the 7-0 lead.
The Dolphins responded with back-to-back tries from No. 8 and Forward of the Match April Rodriguez (whose magic power, according to Sin, is producing ball out of the messiest situations) and Walker, before inside center Marci Flores restored the Land Sharks’ lead to 12-10 with a try.
Two minutes later, Dolphins wing Hannah Han scored, and Vance’s conversion gave Santa Monica a 17-12 lead. Although fullback Emily Rodin tied it up 17-all at minute 32, the Dolphins would not trail for the rest of the match.
Walker put down two more tries before the half, and then Vance kicked off the second stanza with a five-pointer. Santa Monica led 32-17 after 45 minutes. During the next 20 minutes, Belmont Shore tallied two converted tries, coming to within one point with 15 minutes remaining.
“They were down by [one] with seven minutes left, and they went for a penalty kick. Their kicker had been money all day,” Sin remembered. “They missed it and we capitalized on that and scored. That cushioned our lead and more or less sealed the deal for us.”
Walker did the honors in minute 75 for the 37-31 win and spot at nationals.
Approximately three-quarters of last year’s championship team is still active, and it boasts a chemistry that is most visible in the backline. The pack has put in a lot of work and is at a place where the scrums and set plays are well set. This spring the forwards have enjoyed a lot of progress.
“We’re going to Tucson with a full roster and high hopes, but it’ll be tough to play Seattle first,” Sin said of the quarterfinal match-up. “Obviously, they’re an elite team and it’s going to be a challenge. We played them last year on the second day when we had some injuries, so we’ll be able to play them with fresh legs. Our goal is to play the best [teams].
“We have to work on not being reactive to everything. We need to do a better job of anticipating,” the coach thought about the next two weeks of training. “That’s one of the hardest things – not just watching what’s happening in front of you but seeing what’s coming up. We just need to play our game as best as possible, and for us, it will start from defense. We need to smother Seattle as much as possible.”
On the other side of the bracket, Red River champion Austin plays the Frontier’s Denver Black Ice. For a full look at the DI national championship bracket, click here.
By Jackie Finlan
Ventura and O.P. Lightning met each other early in the DII Pacific South season. The Tucson side triumphed 5-0 and hopes for a rematch followed both teams into the league final. The Outlaws traveled to Arizona with 16 players and finished the game with 13 on the pitch, but, remarkably, won 28-18 for a berth to the DII national quarterfinals.
Numbers, especially on the road, has been an on-going issue for Ventura. Player-coaches Julie Gould and Danielle Robottom and lock Corey Lott just focused on building a Tucson-tailored game plan based on the players they had.
On Saturday, the Lightning struck first, as Jessica Szakacs dotted down four minutes in for the 5-0 lead.
“They definitely put us on our heels a bit, but we just shook it off,” Gould said. “The rest of the half was more in our favor, and we had some good momentum into the half.”
Inside center Gould scored Ventura’s first three tries, two in the first half. With scrumhalf Desiree Leaupepe’s conversions, the Outlaws were up 14-5 at the break. And that’s when things started to get difficult. Wing Jill Brownfield had been subbed out with a knee injury early in the first half and lone sub Kimberly Escobar took her place. During the break, wing Suzy Kwon felt dizzy and had to come off. Down to 14 players, Ventura was still able to score – another Gould/Leaupepe combo – five minutes in for the 21-5 lead.
During the third quarter, Leaupepe took a knock and was a little wobbly, so the referee ended the scrumhalf’s day.
“It’s hard to lose players, especially in a championship match, but you don’t want to mess with injuries,” Gould said. “It could have negatively affected us, but it just added fuel to the fire. Everyone picked up slack and played with so much heart and determination."
Flyhalf Katie Sellers moved to scrumhalf and Gould slid over to #10. Robottom rotated from No. 8 in the scrum to inside center to jumper in the lineout depending on which side of the ball Ventura was contesting. Ventura played without a strongside wing, opting for the weakside coverage given Lightning’s proclivity for short-side attacks.
“Our style of defense – a smoke defense – accounted for not having numbers,” the co-captain explained. “You slide out, shift them to the sideline, and don’t play aggressively until you have matched numbers.”
Lightning scrumhalf Ria Joseph took advantage of a gap for a breakaway try, and inside center Amber Jones added two penalties within 10 minutes of each other. Ventura flanker Vanessa Alvarez broke up the scoring with the Outlaws’ fourth try, and Sellers added a conversion. Even though the home side had the extra coverage, MVP Alvarez drew the defense with hard runs, as did outside center Yui Kawakatsu out wide. Both played aggressive games.
All scoring ended by minute 65. somehow, Ventura kept O.P. off the scoreboard for the 28-18 win.
“It’s hard to single out players in a match like this,” Gould considered outstanding performances on the day. “When you’re down to 13 players, you can’t depend on any one person. I can’t take away from the fact that everyone played with everything.
“Of all the ways to win, this is just perfect,” Gould said. “This is the kind of momentum and mental strength you want to see at the end of the season and going into regionals. We always had expectations of returning to nationals, despite finishing third in the league, playing an undefeated club and having to travel. We had the confidence. We knew we just had to do the work.”
Ventura will return to Tucson for the third time this spring for the national quarterfinals May 21-22. At this juncture, the goal is to travel with numbers.
“Coming with 16 and going down to 13 – in an emergency situation, we were able to make it work,” Gould said. “We won’t be able to do that at regionals. It’s a concern. We haven’t had the same starting lineup in any match, but we also don’t depend on any one person for a victory. Our expectations remain the same.”
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