Fall 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of the Women’s Premier League (WPL), an elite competition for top players in the U.S. The WPL leadership and membership have dedicated themselves to elevating the quality of play within its ranks in hopes of driving international performance upward, and the league owes much of its success to the consistent buy-in of its membership.
“It’s a labor of love by nearly 500 women every year to make this happen, and that differentiates us from other competitions,” WPL Commissioner Milla Sanes said of the player-driven league. “Every year the competition gets better and better, and it’s amazing to witness how we manage to top ourselves year after year.”
Sanes originally contributed to the WPL as a player and then transitioned to the D.C. Furies executive board for a five-year term. Former league commissioner (and good friend) Dre Khoury encouraged a leap to the WPL administration, and Sanes served as Membership Director before replacing Khoury in 2016.
“The catalyst was Kathy Flores, the national team coach at the time, who wanted players to have better competition during the year and in between World Cups,” Sanes reflected on the WPL’s genesis. “It was about full buy-in from the teams and those top-level players, and from day one, the WPL has been a player-run league. There are so many stakeholders, so when there are times of struggle, ebbs and flows, that investment kept us going.”
That collaborative spirit still exists. Sanes doesn’t make unilateral decisions, but fosters continual communication with governing council members Ali Gillberg (Marketing Director, Twin Cities) and Carly Harrington (Competitions Director, Atlanta), team leaders and USA Rugby representatives for any and all decisions. At the end of each season, immediately after the national championships, these entities convene for a season debrief and to discuss improvements and big-picture objectives.
“One item [of discussion] has been a showcase for the league and other competitive opportunities during the off-season, and that’s manifested in the past two years in the All-Star Game,” said Sanes. “Especially this year, with it so close to the start of the season, it was a good way to get in the groove of 15s and remember why you’re committed to this. It’s a large commitment [being in the WPL], but things like the All-Star Game help players and viewers remember why we keep the league running and why it’s so important to have this in place and available.”
Last year also saw the league expand from eight to 10 teams, another objective set during the WPL’s creation. That evolution took some time – especially after all the club competitions moved to split-season and the WPL remained in the fall. The promotion/relegation system was suspended so a new pathway to expand the league could be formed, and now 2018 DI champion and runner-up, Life West and Raleigh, respectively, will have the opportunity to challenge teams for a 2019 spot.
“One of the big things we’re always working toward is more professionalization of the league, to create a more cohesive product and really standardize the game across the country,” Sanes continued. “It’s really difficult – especially rugby – because this country is so big and diverse, and teams are so diverse in terms of resources and histories. We really want to elevate the teams together and have the best competition possible every week of the season.
“As a part of that, I’m really excited about this year and working with [USA Rugby High Performance Referee Manager] Richard Every, who’s installing a new program for referees so that games are reffed consistently across the country and season,” Sanes said of the new match officiating pathway. “Coaches and referees will be able to work together for the best games possible, and it’s another way we’re working to elevate the game.”
Amanda Cox will serve as the WPL Referee Development Manager, and the new set-up includes a video-match review, shared reportage and dialogue with team leadership, as well as the same referee panel throughout the entirety of the competition.
All of these improvements will funnel into the 10th season, which begins this weekend and sees all but 2017 finalists New York and Glendale in rotation. The league kicks off early this year, one weekend after the Club 7s National Championship, to accommodate the international tests in November, and thus condensing pre-season.
“This season is a great example of how committed all the teams are to the promotion and continuation of the league,” Sanes said. “I’m inspired by how many teams sent players to 7s nationals and are now right back at home preparing for their first 15s games of the season. They prioritize this league.”
Akin to last year, Berkeley, Chicago North Shore, Glendale, ORSU and San Diego will contest home-and-away games in the Blue Conference, while Atlanta, Beantown, D.C. Furies, New York and Twin Cities due battle in the Red Conference. New USA Women’s 15s Head Coach Rob Cain indicated that he will start fostering relationships by traveling to all of the teams in-season. He got his first glimpse of the talent at the All-Star Game in Denver, and invited Lauran Glover (D.C. Furies) and Jess Davis (Beantown) to his first USA 15s high performance camp in early August.
The WPL is a proving ground, and Cain will be watching as the New Zealand test in Chicago and European tour loom. He’ll also meet coaches who are new to the WPL. In the Blue Conference, San Diego’s Jarrod Faul and Berkeley’s Theo Bennett have returned as head coaches, while Glendale’s Luke Gross has taken over for Kitt Ruiz (now at Atlanta), former Seattle Saracen Parisa Asgharzadeh leads Chicago North Shore, and ORSU has Anthony Kolanko as head coach.
As mentioned, Ruiz relocated to the Harlequins in the Red Conference, and the D.C. Furies have shifted its staff. Jo Bader, who has served as head coach previously, and backs coach Mike McMillon are now co-head coaches. Mere Baker, who was one of several commentators for last weekend’s club 7s national championship, is now at Beantown, and New York has made a local hire (to be announced) to replace Women’s Junior All-American coach James English. The only returning coach is Roger Bruggemeyer, who has been with Twin Cities throughout the team’s entire WPL career.
A decade in and there’s still plenty of newness and intrigue flowing through the WPL, and Sanes credits the longevity and stability of the league to its membership.
“The 10th season really is testimony to how incredibly hard the women who are part of the league work and how they value rugby as an important part of their lives,” Sanes concluded. “That’s why the league has made it this long.”
Visit www.wplrugby.org for more information.