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WPL Player of the Week: Maria Bowker

Things changed after Twin Cities dropped its first Red Conference match in three Women’s Premier League (WPL) seasons. Head coach Roger Bruggemeyer was already contemplating some positional moves when the Amazons hosted New York during round three, but a 27-point loss confirmed that adjustments were needed. After the bye week, the Minnesota side sent a retooled lineup to D.C. for its first road game of the season, and Player of the Week Maria Bowker caught special praise in the 75-7 win.

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“We changed our entire back line pretty much. It was intentional,” said Twin Cities assistant coach Kim O’Brien, who noted that only one player played the same position in the previous three matches. “There were certain things that we didn’t think were working against New York – some of the offense we wanted to generate – so Roger made the decision to make some changes.”

Captain Sylvia Braaten and Jacie Vonada moved into the centers, migrating from flyhalf and fullback, respectively. Katana Howard slid from inside center to flyhalf, while Kaelene Lundstrum dropped from wing to fullback. Bowker had been playing outside center and bumped out to wing, where she scored four tries against D.C.

“Maria was able to take the ball outside – she’s a strong runner, so she’s not afraid to take on some contact in the process,” O’Brien said. “She took advantage of her opportunities and ran them in for tries. … The good news obviously is if the ball’s getting to the wing, then everyone else is doing their jobs. Everyone played well – capitalized on opportunities – but at the same time, everyone missed tackles. So there are things to work on.”

Getting those new combinations working well together is a focus this week during training. There is some history in the Howard-Braaten 10-12 combo, which ran during the 2014 WPL season, and O’Brien is eager to see Braaten free up and employ her effective strike running from inside center. The assistant coach asserted that the backline has to be able to play off whatever happens after that line-break, and with try-scorers Lundstrum and Vonada (who scored two tries and five conversions Sunday), and support like Bowker working around the pitch, the backs can build toward their ideal offense.

“She is one of our strongest runners, and it showed on Sunday with her ability to finish when she got the ball in her hands,” the captain reflected on Bowker’s performance. “We are still working out some kinks but had some great line-breaks and finishing tries, which helps to build confidence with players in new positions moving forward.”

While the backs work on their cohesion, the forwards are providing stability.

“Overall, I think the forwards are playing well together. We’ve had a few new people step up and get more playing time on the WPL side and manage that well,” O’Brien said. “I’d still like us to better in contact – we gave up too much ball in contact this weekend – and there were plenty of missed tackles out there that we need to fix.”

The pack was well represented on the scoreboard against D.C., as loose forwards Becca Brown and Stacey Bridges scored two tries apiece, and Ali Gillberg and Tupou Paea also dotted down. Twin Cities was happy for the big win against D.C., and it was a good way to ease into some necessary changes.

“It’s a little early to say that we got everything the way we want it,” O’Brien said. “Things went relatively well but the true test comes this weekend.”

Twin Cities heads to New York this weekend for the rematch.

Women's Premier League 2016: Week 4 Recap

Week four of the Women’s Premier League (WPL) has seen the top teams in each conference strengthen their chances for the championship semifinals. Glendale (4-0) and San Diego (3-1) hosted their respective Blue Conference games and won in front of hometown crowds, while Red Conference leaders New York (4-0) and Twin Cities (3-1) were victorious on the road.

The Raptors saw some new, but familiar, faces make the game-day roster against ORSU Saturday. Olympian Carmen Farmer, Eagle Hannah Stolba and Kristen Shalosky got their first WPL minutes of the season, and contributed to a 46-17 victory over the Oregon team.

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“I think that those players as well as others made a significant impact on the game,” commented Glendale co-captain Christen Suda, who accounted for 14 points on a try, penalty and three conversions. “Playing with players of such a high level just takes everyone’s game up a notch. This year we haves a lot of depth and the top 23 are changing each week. It is a great problem to have and the competition for the top 23 at Glendale continues to get stronger. I’m sure selections for the coaches have been very tough.”

Glendale put down the first 22 points on the match, and Suda herself took care of the first 10. Wing Andrea Prusinski scored her third try of the season, and then 7s and 15s Eagle Farmer notched her first-ever WPL try. Prop Adrienne Acosta scored for ORSU, and Molly Luft’s conversion made it 22-7 to Glendale at the break.

The Raptors began to work the bench, and the second half saw seven substitutions keep the pace of play at a premium.

“The beauty about it is that we have been able to challenge ourselves as rugby players to find what works best for the team,” Suda added. “The depth of the team has allowed us to try out new players, try old players at new positions and really to test out which combinations work effectively. … The game of rugby is really picking up momentum in the US. And our club is just one testament on how the quality of players continues to get better as the competition gets stronger.”

Notre Dame College alumna and WPL first-year Patsy Ford opened up the second-half scoring before ORSU stalwart Beckett Royce dotted down the first of her two tries. League-leading try-scorer Justine Wypych tallied her eighth try of the season, and the scoreline sat at 34-17 after the third quarter. Glendale’s defense remained valiant, and the home side was rewarded with Jeanna Beard and Colleen Cribbs tries in the waning minutes. Stolba’s conversion afforded the 29-point victory.

San Diego got good work from its bench as well and scored a league high 86 points to Berkeley’s seven Saturday. Flanker Kate Zachary scored three first-half tries, as the Surfers ran out to a 54-7 halftime lead. Outside center Courtney Hendrickson, who distinguished herself during the club 7s championship, accounted for the All Blues’ try, which flyhalf Lauren Rhode converted.

Eagles Hope Rogers and Dana Meschisi, and wing Danielle Miano scored two tries apiece. Hannah Lockwood and reserves Vivian Renshaw, Skye Howard and Matelina Maluia also scored tries, while fullback Tia Blythe added eight conversions.

“The WPL has been fun so far,” noted Rogers, who is competing in her first WPL season. “I love being a part of the Surfers team. We are truly growing as a team on and off the field. I think the coaches are doing a great job of developing us. We have dynamic players from 1-23 and even some who aren’t on the first 23 roster.”

San Diego and ORSU will delay their fifth round game against each other to Oct. 22, while the rest of the league contests games Oct. 15-16.

The Red Conference put its top two teams on the road for Sunday games, and they returned home with solid wins. Undefeated New York took on Atlanta at Life University’s stellar facilities and recorded a 31-5 victory over the Harlequins. In the teams’ first meeting, New York triumphed 24-16 on Randall’s Island.

Eagle flanker Phaidra Knight led with two tries, while USA-capped lock Alycia Washington scored her fourth try of the WPL season. Wing Jess Berry dotted her third try of the fall, while Atlanta alumna Kassidi Wynter, who is typically seen in the front row, also scored from wing. Also new to the lineup, inside Ayden Bain contributed the conversions. The New Zealand native grew up with the game and has played in Canada and Australia, and like travel mate Brooke Saunders is angling for selection to the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup squad for Australia.

New York has clinched its return to the championship semifinals, and Twin Cities is in the best shape to take the Red Conference’s second berth to the final four on Friday, Nov. 11. The Amazons played their first game outside of Minnesota this season, and the 75-7 win over the D.C. Furies marked the first of five-straight games (including finals) on the road.

Twin Cities traveled with three reserves, and there were a couple of different combinations in play. The forwards were missing players like Anna Brown and Rachel Maas, but Marina McCuskey did well at lock during her first start of the WPL season, and Mikayla Miller returned to the starting #1 spot. Eagle Stacey Bridges traveled from New Hampshire, where she is assistant coach to Katie Dowty at Dartmouth, for her second game at No. 8.

Captain Sylvia Braaten traded her #10 jersey with regular inside center Katana Howard. Braaten plays in the centers for the Eagles and reiterated why from #12 Sunday. Howard connected well with scrumhalf Rachel Lentsch to keep play moving fluidly. Typical fullback and conversion kicker Jacie Vonada moved up to outside center, while Kaelene Lundstrum shifted from wing to #15.

Despite the movement, the Amazons had little trouble finding the try zone, going up 34-7 in the first half. Wing Maria Bowker did an excellent job finishing on the wing, accounting for three tries in the first 40. Prop Ali Gillberg and young, standout flanker Rebecca Brown also scored in the first half, while Vonada added the extras.

Twin Cities more than doubled its output in the second half for the bonus-point win. A big game awaits on Sunday, Oct. 16, as the Amazons travel to New York and gauge the improvement made since the 42-15 loss on Sept. 25.

Women's Premier League 2016: Week 2 Recap

Round two of the Women’s Premier League (WPL) has concluded, and there are three teams still undefeated: Glendale, New York and Twin Cities. Similarly, there are three teams looking for their first wins of the fall this upcoming weekend.

The Red Conference has two 2-0 teams in Twin Cities and New York, but that will end this weekend when the two duel in Minnesota. Against the D.C. Furies on Sunday, the Amazons made a couple of adjustments to its pack from last week, bringing flanker Rachel Maas to the front row and lock Anna Brown to No. 8., while Xanthi Gerasimo got the start in the second row. The back line was nearly the same, the lone exception being Jasmine Davis at wing.

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The scoring started early, as Maas dotted down in the opening minutes and fullback Jacie Vonada kicked the first of her five conversions on the day. The first half ended with a 24-0 lead to the home side, as Davis scored and then inside center Katana Howard dotted down back-to-back tries.

D.C. cracked the scoreboard early in the second half when lock Lucia Martino scored, but it was another 40 minutes until the visitors scored again. Scrumhalf Gussie Maguire put five more points on the board during injury time, and outside center Karoline Walter converted for the 12 points.

In between D.C. scores, Twin Cities sent reserve Kate Stephens and captain Sylvia Braaten into the try zone. The flyhalf actually scored three times in the fourth quarter for the 50-12 win. The D.C. Furies will be looking for their first win of the fall this Saturday evening when the team travels to Atlanta for a match on Life University’s campus.

New York got more push-back from Atlanta in the other Red Conference match. The Harlequins, playing in their second road game, were disruptive in and around the breakdown, and that frustrated New York.

“It was one of those games where the wind was good, there was good momentum, but it didn’t feel quite as put-together as last week,” said New York captain Tiffany Faaee, who returns from injury this week against Twin Cities.

“Atlanta was relentless in the rucks and their launch was on-point for 80% of the game,” she added. “They were making it hard for [scrumhalf] Shelby [Lin] to get clean ball to the backs, so they didn’t get as much ball as last week.”

New York did make good use of the ball early in the match, putting up 12 points in the first quarter and adding a second try before the break. But the home side struggled in the middle 40, and Atlanta was able to pull within six points before halftime, 19-13.

“We gave up seven penalties in the first half, and Atlanta was really smart in taking advantage,” Faaee said of the Harlequins’ nine points off the tee. “That was us not being very disciplined, and we made it harder on ourselves.”

Ryszard Chadwick filled in for absent head coach James English, and used the break to re-center the team.

“He explained again that we wanted to use our speed out wide more. The forwards were taking it into contact for one too many phases,” Faaee said. “Just get the ball out to the backs and let them have a go at the fringes. That’s how we were able to get into their territory more.”

The forwards did a better job of preserving space for the backs, but Atlanta played good defense. In the second 40, New York added one more try through Lisa Roselin, while Atlanta tacked on a penalty for the 24-16 final.

“We’re glad that we got the win … but toward the end, the girls came off saying that it was harder than we wanted it to be,” the Eagle prop added. “We knew we could have played better and were scrambling to get in the groove, but Atlanta did a good job applying pressure.”

San Diego’s opening weekend in the WPL was a sobering one, but the result was a team eager to redeem itself with an 80-minute performance. That motivation turned into a 69-7 win over Berkeley.

“We built from lessons learned last week,” San Diego coach Jarrod Faul said. “We had more clarity in our systems this weekend, more cohesion. We did a really good job with the width of the field and attacking spaces.”

The Surfers’ attack shape was in better form Sunday, and it produced 11 tries from seven players. Flyhalf Hunter Griendling led all point-scorers (17) on three tries and one conversion, and earned much praise from Faul on her leading performance. Wing Kyla Roth and front row Sam Pankey dotted down twice apiece, while lock Mely Quiroz, inside center Deven Owsiany, replacement wing Danielle Miano, and Hope Rogers in her debut also scored. Fullback Tia Blythe added six conversions.

“We tried to play an expansive game and did a good job of keeping the ball alive, keeping at pace, and stressing the defense,” Faul said. “We’re still working on our systems and really working on our accuracy and recognizing when to take the space.

“And if we want to play that fast, expansive game, then we need to be fitter – which is something I’m constantly driving with the girls.”

Faul is also pleased with the numbers at training, with more than 40 players bringing a competitive edge to the squad and challenging for positions. This week, Rogers, Kate Zachary, Jordan Gray and Lauren Brisbin got their first starts of the season.

Both Glendale and ORSU made three changes to their respective starting rosters. Melissa Polheber, Julie Tordonato and Fatima Chavez got the nod for the Raptors, while Melody Glasgow, Te Awhina Ho Chee and Emma Krnacik made the Jesters’ first XV.

The visitors took the first lead, and then ORSU answered with back-to-back tries for a 10-5 edge.

“The biggest challenge to our possession was turnover ball and their counter-attack on us,” Glendale captain Christen Suda said. “When taking the ball into contact, they could turn us over, sometimes it was rucks and other times it was straight from our hands. They’ve always done that really well. … We had possession for a good amount, but they played good defense.”

Some key substitutions injected new life onto the pitch, and the Raptors were able to run in three unanswered tries. By game’s end, Pohleber, Sarah Chobot, Andrea Prusinski and Justine Wypych dotted down, while Colleen Cribbs converted for the 22-10 win.

“We were able to pull out the win by settling into our pattern and keeping composure in a very tight game,” Suda said. “Just not being too frantic. It was very similar to last weekend’s game.”

Women's Premier League 2016: Week 1 Recap

This weekend served as a first look into the eighth iteration of the Women’s Premier League (WPL), and all signs point to a very competitive season. In the Blue Conference, two-time defending champion Glendale overtook San Diego, 28-26, in the final minutes of play, while Oregon Rugby Sports Union’s defense subdued Berkeley in a 34-12 win. In the Red Conference, Twin Cities topped visiting Atlanta, 38-17, while New York posted the biggest point differential in a 48-0 win over D.C. Furies.

Every team broke in some WPL newcomers and leaned on veterans for leadership, and the game of the weekend in Glendale was no different. The Raptors saw players like flanker Avery Potter and Wisconsin alumna Justine Wypych prove very effective in their debuts, while San Diego benefitted from forward transfers like Matelina Maluia, Melissa Quiroz, and Eagles Molly Kinsella and Sam Pankey.

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The Glendale and San Diego backs scored two tries apiece in the first half, but the first of three Tia Blythe conversions gave the Surfers a 12-10 lead into the break. Maluia and Quiroz added third-quarter tries, which bookended a Glendale penalty. After 60 minutes, San Diego led, 26-13.

“We got into our pattern and were more tidy with the ball,” Glendale captain Sarah Chobot reflected on the turnaround. “The big thing was nobody backslid when we were down. We started to pick away [at the lead], slowly working on things. Then we caught a lucky break.”

Glendale scored three tries in the final quarter. The go-ahead points came in the final minutes, when Glendale flanker Joanna Kitlinski scooped up an errant Surfers pass for the try and win. It is a tough way to lose, but the Surfers picked up two bonus points in the standings.

In the Pacific Northwest, ORSU hosted 2015 runner-up Berkeley. A young All Blues side scored the first and final points of the game, but ORSU scored six tries in between. Berkeley got its tries after fly half Lauren Rhode put Ardia Kelker into space with a well-placed grubber and later through AIG Women’s Collegiate All-American Bulou Mataitoga. ORSU player-coach Beckett Royce pointed to the trio for exerting a ton of offensive pressure.

Led by stalwarts like flanker Rachel Johnson and full back Molly Luft, the ORSU defense stood up. Three first-half tries came from Hannah Summers, Te Awhina Ho Chee and Paris Hart, while Royce, Brett Zimmerman and Kaitlin Sigado scored in the second 40. Luft added two conversions, as well.

“I was really pleased with the opener,” Royce summarized. “There is still much to work on, but we did the basics well, worked really hard for each other and showed a lot of resolve on defense. It’s a great platform from which to launch the season’s campaign, and I think we’re off to a solid start. We have a lot of new, incoming talent and a few second-year players that are switching positions or being asked to take a step into starting roles, and I was extremely happy with all of their performances.”

Royce was particularly complimentary of Sigado, who “took the reins with her first start at 10 and did an impressive job, showing a lot of poise under the pressure of Berkeley’s defense,” the player-coach praised.

New York and D.C. kicked off the Red Conference action Saturday, and stifling temperatures in Maryland served as an additional opponent. The visitors were more successful turning their possession into points and sent five players across for tries: Jess Berry (2), Ally Dykes, Nicole Humphrey, Mary McCarthy, Ashley Nesby and Kristen Siano. McCarthy and Siano split the kicking duties.

New York head coach James English echoed Royce’s sentiments in that the season-opener looked like a season-opener: There are kinks to work out but a good platform for success has been set. New York followed its WPL win with another shutout against D.C.’s second side, a game that featured well-known athletes like Gio Cruz, Phaidra Knight, and Lisa Roselin.

The Twin Cities-versus-Atlanta game rounded out the weekend’s action, as the Harlequins traveled to Minnesota for the Sunday match. Atlanta took the first lead through a Laoise O’Driscoll penalty and remained within striking distance through 65 minutes. Amazons tries from Rachel Lentsch (2), Tupouahau Paea and Tiffany Gjestvang were answered by scores from Laketa Sutton and Lisa Gartner. Two O’Driscoll conversions, as well as one from Twin Cities’ Jacie Vonada, saw the scoreboard sit at 24-17 after 65 minutes.

“It was a windy day, so it was a tale of two halves for both teams in terms of what you could do,” Twin Cities assistant coach Kim O’Brien said. “In the first half, we had some opportunities to get it out to the wing when we were close to the try line, but got knocked out of bounds before dotting down. We couldn’t finish. We were going with the wind in the second half … and Sylvia [Braaten] had some nice kicks to keep us in their territory and keep pressure on them.”

With the outcome still in question, the Amazons surged ahead in the final 10 minutes of the match. Vonada converted her own score, and then loose forward Becca Brown, who impressed in her first WPL match, dotted down in the waning minutes. Vonada’s third conversion made it 38-17.

“Our scrum did a really great job. And on a windy day, we only missed two lineouts,” Atlanta coach Phil Thiel reviewed the day’s positives. “We had great line breaks and great support, just a few things to improve upon. The Amazons are very strong, disciplined and well drilled with good athletes, but we were right there with them.”

Atlanta got good performances out of players like center Monique Compito, Kimberly Knipe and O’Driscoll, although Thiel was pleased with the range of veterans and newcomers on the pitch. Twin Cities found inspiration in the hard-tackling Braaten, prop Mikayla Miller, who is fortifying the front row, Northern Iowa alumna Brown in her WPL debut, as well as flanker Rachel Maas and scrum half Lentsch.

“I was impressed with Atlanta, and I think they’ll be tough,” O’Brien said. “They have a new coaching staff so it’ll be interesting to see how they develop over the weeks, and we’ll see them in our last game of the season.”

This weekend sees D.C. Furies travel to Twin Cities, while New York hosts Atlanta. In the Blue Conference, San Diego heads to Berkeley, while ORSU welcomes Glendale.