The best game of the Women’s Premier League season occurred on Sept. 15, when Twin Cities flew to California for a 22-21 win over reigning champ Berkeley. The league hoped that Sunday’s rematch might supplant that epic battle, but an even more surprising result evolved: The Amazons put 38 points between themselves and the All Blues in the 46-8 victory.
“You don’t expect to score that many points against Berkeley,” Twin Cities coach Roger Bruggemeyer said. “Both teams have the ability to score a ton of points, but usually the defenses are so dominant. We just got to such a quick start; we were up 19-0 after 10 minutes.”
What was different about this game? One might suspect that Berkeley didn’t travel well, or perhaps rested some players now that they were guaranteed a spot in the championship’s top tier. But some influential players were present: Nathalie Marchino, Jossy Tseng, Katy Augustyn, Katie Chou, Ruth Bryson, Emily Van Gulik, Cynthia Wright, to name a few.
Bruggemeyer suspected that his team was poised for a good game, and the hints started during warm-ups.
“They knew this was an important game, that first place was on the line. And you’re at home and you want to play well for your spectators,” Bruggemeyer explained the pre-game tension. “They were focused, and quiet – they are not a quiet group – and they weren’t clicking during warm-up. As strange as that sounds as a coach, it’s makes me happy. When everything’s clicking, it means you don’t have those pre-game nerves going. But before big games, when the adrenaline’s pumping and the anticipation’s building, warm-ups aren’t as smooth as they could be, because the players are thinking about actually playing the game.”
Bruggemeyer asked his forwards to focus on playing for 80 minutes – not just making it to the end of the game, but contesting all forward situations –contact points, set pieces, etc. – completely checked in. That’s what handicapped Twin Cities in the teams’ first league game. Berkeley took advantage of lapses in concentration and turned momentum in their favor. Additionally, the Amazons needed to finish on their scoring opportunities. They had left some points on the board in California, and that nearly cost them the game.
“It’s so hard to predict. You’re running the same patterns, doing the same things. Sometimes you get the breaks, sometimes you don’t,” Bruggemeyer tried to make sense of the two vastly different outcomes. “When we had the chances, we were able to finish.”
Twin Cities enjoyed more space in the backs than they had in California. A Berkeley injury allowed Amazons centers Sylvia Braaten and Lynelle Kugler to better penetrate the All Blues' defense, which created more room for the forwards to join the attack. By halftime, the hosts led 27-3 on tries from Jamie Zarembinski, Stacey Bridges, Braaten and Rachel Lentsch, while Rebecca Radtke added two conversions and a penalty (Bryson accounted for Berkeley’s penalty). The Zons kept pushing through the second 40 and outscored the All Blues 19-5, as Jacie Vonada, Braaten and Morgan Johnson dotted down, and Radtke tacked on two two-pointers (Chou touched down Berkeley’s try).
“It’s hard to pick standouts when you win like that, but Braaten had a nice game with a couple of tries,” Bruggemeyer said. “The whole backline played well. Lynelle’s not getting the tries like she did last year, but she’s making the line breaks and setting up her teammates. Radtke had a really good defensive game. No big tackles just consistent, tackling forwards and backs alike.”
Lentsch is also doing a good job filling Nicole Benjamin’s boots at scrumhalf. Playing in her second WPL game after her predecessor’s injury, she’s keeping up with the intensity.
“It’s a difficult situation coming in,” Bruggemeyer said of Lentsch’s quick education. “She had been playing on the D2 team, and the difference in the speed of the game is night and day. That’s been the hardest thing for her to get used to. Even in practice, the WPL players react faster, so she has to get into position faster, make decisions quicker. She’s coming along nicely – especially against a team like Berkeley that is so strong in the breakdown and fast around the base. It could be a scrumhalf’s worst nightmare.”
Even though four of six rounds have past, and nationals is peeking over the horizon, Bruggemeyer didn’t empty his bench once the win became evident. That decision, he says, is a by-product of the team ethos.
“You have to earn [game time] in practice; you don’t just get into the games,” the coach explained. “I got some of the players in but not all. In reality, I like the players who are in to learn how to play 80 minutes.”
Berkeley has never lost two games to the same team during the WPL season. It’s an impressive stat that Twin Cities has erased, but Bruggemeyer indicated that the team isn’t indulging in too much back-patting.
“Every team thinks they can beat everybody; you have to have that mentality,” he said. “We’ve seen the success, but we’ve also seen things not work and know we have to keep working hard, getting better every week like everyone else. … I’ve told the players that they have a target on their backs since they’re undefeated, and everyone’s working harder in preparation to play them. So we’ve got to keep up that good work ethic.”
The Amazons are on the road this weekend to play San Diego, while Berkeley hosts Atlanta for game five. The Red Conference has already been decided in terms of which teams are advancing to the top and bottom tiers of the championships; the Blue Conference will come down to the final game.