Merlins book ticket to WPL semis

After last weekend, one team has reserved its spot in the Women’s Premier League (WPL) championship semifinals. It will all come down to the final two rounds of play.

Glendale (6-0-1) officially booked its spot in the championship semifinals after defeating San Diego (3-3) 27-18 at home. The bonus-point win pushed the Merlins’ standings points to 30, guaranteeing first place in the Blue Conference.

“Last week was really strange due to the match against Chicago North Shore being called in the 36th minute due to lightning, which resulted in a tie,” explained Glendale co-captain Jenny Lui. “That put a little extra pressure on this match. It was a must-win situation against the Surfers from a points perspective. So now that we’re on the other side of that, it’s a bit of a relief to know we’ve punched our ticket to the final four. However, we’re not taking our foot off the gas. We know there’s plenty of things to work on between now and nationals and that the competition will be fierce. These next few weeks will be about keeping our heads down and doing work.”

And that’s because the competition isn’t that far behind. Glendale wing Alli Hale scored the first try approximately five minutes into the match, and then three penalty kicks followed – one from Merlins flyhalf Hannah Stolba, and two from San Diego fullback Tia Blythe. Glendale also earned a seven-point penalty try to lead the Surfers 15-6 into the break.

As the fourth quarter neared, San Diego built some momentum and sent flanker Sam Pankey and wing Madison Arenchild into the try zone for two quick scores. Blythe’s conversion gave the visitors an 18-15 lead.

“We knew that it was going to be a game of ebbs and flows, especially against a dangerous team like San Diego, so we just stayed together, trusted each other, and found a way to respond with a try just a few minutes later,” Lui recounted Christen Suda’s score. “Shortly after that, Alli Hale would score the final try of the match and things settled down a bit. It was an exciting end to a tough, hard-fought match.”

San Diego trails Berkeley (3-3) by two standings points, making the duo the top contenders for the second seed to the semifinals, but ORSU (2-4) isn’t out of the running either. The Portland-based team traveled to Chicago and toughed out a 17-14 win over North Shore (1-5-1), and plays its final two games at home.

“I was very happy with the progress we made from our last match against Berkeley to this one against North Shore,” ORSU coach Beckett Royce praised. “Our discipline while defending was much improved and we were able to create more opportunities on attack. We also showed good resolve and maturity at the end of the match to hold on to the lead and close out the game.”

ORSU flanker Rachel Johnson scored two tries, lock Te Awhina Ho Chee one, and flyhalf Emma Richie added a conversion.

As for Chicago North Shore, the team has been happy with its growth during its first WPL season, but isn’t content to settle for close games.

“We need to become a team that doesn’t only compete in close games, but wins them. That is not a physical challenge, it is a mental one. That is now our primary focus,” asserted North Shore co-captain Christiane Pheil. “Against ORSU, our penalty count was far too high. Our effort was there, but our discipline and intellectual performance was poor. We have to be able to adapt and make those changes at this level, and we were not able to do that this weekend.

“ORSU played very effective, clean rugby and it was a great lesson for us,” the No. 8 continued. “Overall, we were proud of the effort but disappointed in our ability to execute and keep our composure through such a close match.”

In the Red Conference, the D.C. Furies (0-6) are looking for its first win and did well to keep it close with Beantown (5-2) during the first half. After Beantown prop Jess Davis and outside center Kat Phelan scored tries, D.C. wing Judy Dickson dotted down for the 10-5 scoreline after 40 minutes.

“Building our defensive structure was a key area of focus this week, and honestly will be every week until the end of the season,” Beantown captain Sam Luther noted. “I think our communication and heads-up defensive has improved since September, but this is an area of focus where we can always be better. We tend to see a lot of success when we work together as a unit and pressure an offense as a solid wall.”

Phelan not only scored again but was also recognized as backs MVP for her positive tackles, defensive effort and pace on the edge. Reserve Tara Roberts also scored and earned forwards MVP.

“Tara is a workhorse, especially in the breakdown, and today we asked her to play in multiple positions that require much different skill sets, and she did so unwaveringly,” Luther added.

Luther scored, as did Yeja Dunn, another impact sub. Emily Jones’ conversion capped a 32-5 final. Beantown has done everything in its power to finish in the top two this season, and it will all come down to this weekend’s away game against Twin Cities (4-2), which had a bye last weekend.

Although New York (6-0) can be caught in the standings, it’s on track to be Red Conference champion. The team hosted Atlanta (1-6) and banked a bonus-point win in the 36-12 victory.

New York sent Alexa Scott, Lisa Roselin and Natalie Kosko into the try zone during the first quarter, and then wing Dominque Purifoy scored Atlanta’s first try, 15-5. New York flyhalf Kristen Siano scored just before the break and converted her own try for the 22-5 lead.

Atlanta traveled light so there weren’t many options for substitutes, while New York cleared its bench. Roselin and Kosko scored again, Siano added a conversion, and then Atlanta flyhalf Alice Plant ended the game with a try and conversion.

“Atlanta gave us a tough game and made us work really hard for 80 minutes,” New York coach James English summarized. “We had some solid moments but lacked some consistency. I think we frustrated ourselves at times trying to force the game instead of being patient.”

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