Women's Premier League 2016: 5th Place Preview

The 8th annual Women’s Premier League (WPL) championship is set for Friday, Nov. 11 and Sunday, Nov. 13 at Life University in Marietta, Ga. Each of the eight teams will play two games, with either the championship title or 5th place as the prize for an undefeated weekend. Atlanta, Berkeley, D.C. Furies and Oregon Rugby Sports Union (ORSU) will by vying for 5th place (read more on the championship semifinals).

ORSU and Atlanta ended their regular seasons 2-4, and their victories came against the 0-6 All Blues and Furies, respectively. On Friday, ORSU will play D.C., and Atlanta will play Berkeley.

“Definitely a rebuilding year,” ORSU captain Rachel Johnson classified the season. “A few ORSU players were absent this season either due to injury or retirement, so we have been experimenting with newer and/or younger players in some key positions, including a very new front three. Although at times there is a lot of learning to be done, our coaches have really stepped up in their coaching roles, and the team has been very responsive and positive in our growth.”

ORSU took a hit when player/coach San Juanita Moreno suffered an ACL injury during the summer. The silver lining, however, was more dedicated attention to her coaching role, and paired with player/coach Beckett Royce, the duo placed a simpler, approachable game plan in front of the younger team.

“Although unfortunate, San Juanita’s ACL injury gave her some more sideline experience where she was able to hone her analyzing and feedback skills, especially for our newer players in the front three,” Johnson explained. “Additionally, she has approached drills with individuals in mind, formulating specific expectations and encouragement tailored for each back line player.”

Johnson pointed to fullback Molly Luft as her on-field partner in terms of leadership, and welcomed the return of Te Awhina Ho Chee, as well as Moreno toward the end of the season, for their veteran insight. It allowed breakout performances from lock Candace Mahoney-Watson, hooker/flanker Paris Hart and scrumhalf Claire Lundy.

ORSU is coming off of a 24-12 win over Berkeley in round six of league and prepares for the D.C. Furies in the semifinals. D.C., too, has been rebuilding this year, and it’s a process with which captain Sharifa Love-Schnur is familiar.

“There are a decent amount of new faces, a lot of young players this year, but D.C. always suffers from a transient population,” said the captain, who’s been with the team since 2009. “It’s definitely frustrating, to work on things over the course of the season and make progress, and then have a large amount of personnel change. You can’t maintain momentum. You have to reset and start over.”

But Schnur also recognized the opportunity for younger players to step into leadership roles, and focused on that goal toward growth. Providence transfer Michelle Vander Ploeg has flourished in the flyhalf position and directs the back line well. Wing Leni Dworkis upped her contributions this season, and No. 8 Maggie Olney has been integral in directing the forwards.

Despite the highlights, the Furies struggled to score points this season – just 38 across six games. Finishing scoring opportunities was an area of concern that coach Jo Bader had noted prior to the season.

“Everyone is committed and everyone is excited about getting better,” Schnur summarized the team attitude. “No one is satisfied where we ended our regular season. We all want to grow … and we’re taking a positive and fun team attitude [to nationals].”

On the other side bracket, Berkeley is playing in the fifth-place tier for the first time in the competition’s history. The winner of the 2011 and 2012 WPL trophies, the All Blues went winless through regular season.

Eagle hooker Katy Augustyn confirmed that the season’s been a little rough for the team in transition.

“We lost quite a few players to retirement, school and injury,” Augustyn compared the roster to a year ago. “We have a lot of new faces, some who have played before, others who are relatively new to the game. Obviously it’s frustrating to lose games, but I am really proud of the team.”

That pride originates from the collaboration occurring between the generations of players. Familiar names like Katie Chou, Allison Byrne, Ardia Kelker and Frieda Fetu’u, among others, are helping along developing talent. The All Blues were fortunate to acquire deft flyhalf Lauren Rhode, who has called New York, D.C. and San Diego her home the last few years.

“The younger players are not afraid to ask questions, are really accepting of constructive criticism, and are continually showing improvement on the field,” Augustyn added. “There is no doubt in my mind that this is just a transition phase for the Berkeley All Blues and you’ll see the team continue to improve and excel in the upcoming seasons just like they have in the past.”

Atlanta head coach Phil Thiel has been pleased with the progress that the Harlequins have made this season, and it nearly culminated in a come-from-behind victory over the Twin Cities Amazons (18-17 loss) in round six. In the teams’ first meeting, Atlanta relinquished 38 points, and Thiel pointed to a massively improved, physical defense for closing the gap.

“The second big thing to improve is our desire to go forward with ball in hand,” Thiel said. “It’s really great to see people go hard toward the line and really want to go forward. They’re playing rugby the way it should be played.”

Thiel recognized forwards like captain Maggie Craig, No. 8 Kimberly Knipe and flanker Liz Snodgrass for setting the example in work ethic and aggression. In the backs, the coach has cheered the players’ adaptability. Players moved around and has finally seen a healthy Becky Martin settle into flyhalf; Laoise O’Driscoll (with the stellar boot) grow into inside center; a natural, hard-running center, Lara Gartner is leaving her mark at fullback; and wing Meredith Whitten is flourishing outside of her comfort zone. Meanwhile, Monique Compito has dazzled at outside center.

Atlanta has two more opportunities to further that upward trajectory, and the Harlequins will do it in front of a hometown crowd. Atlanta plays the first game of the day Friday at 10 a.m. Eastern against Berkeley. For more information, CLICK HERE.