Last year, Glendale was grateful to be playing in the championship tier of the Women’s Premier League, having achieved the goal of avoiding relegation. There are no please-and-thank-yous this year, as the Raptors are unapologetically gunning for the title.
“This year they are very well prepared going into a match,” Glendale coach Steve Lynch said. “They no longer view themselves as a newcomer to the WPL and have a different level of confidence. Part of losing as badly as we did in the final [last year] is motivation to work harder.”
For example, Lynch runs skills and fitness sessions Monday-Thursday before training, and gets anywhere from 8-10 players, rookies and veterans, attending. That type of dedication helped Glendale to an undefeated season, but the team did no go unchallenged through its six bonus-point victories. The league-ender was particularly memorable, as Beantown took a 10-0 lead after 10 minutes, all in front of 600 spectators within Infinity Park, the largest crowd for a women’s-only game (that wasn’t also combining fan bases with another event).
“They came out physical, which is something we expected from Beantown,” Lynch said. “They learned a lot from that match, more about themselves than anything else, that they have the ability to be down and come back. We maintained our composure, weathered the storm, and put up 48 points against them in the second half. It taught them about their character – that the score does matter, because they’re going to keep playing rugby and they’re good enough to come back against anybody.”
With the regular season over, the team was able to focus more energy on settling old scores, namely Berkeley. The All Blues blanked Glendale 39-5 in last year’s title bout, and that performance has been haunting some players ever since.
“It’s an interesting match for our first match in the playoffs, since we haven’t seen them play this year, outside of film,” Lynch said. “[Last year’s loss] … is something that’s been on some of the veterans’ minds. They want to show that was a fluke, a mindset issue, and not that they are that much better than us. It has given them something to work toward. So, yes, our first match is very interesting.”
Lynch has for the most part the personnel he needs to get the job done. Glendale has won the attrition war, minor injuries aside, but there is some worry about the proportion of backs and forwards.
“We’re a little thinner in the backline in terms of depth than we are in the forwards,” Lynch said. “If we lost a few forwards, it wouldn’t change how we play, as we’re obviously a forward-heavy team with a number of Eagles and Eagle pool players in the pack. It’s one thing we do well – retain possession, good set pieces. If we were to lose a Hannah [Stolba, flyhalf], it would affect us significantly in our ability to spread the field and compliment what our forwards are doing.”
That’s not to say that the backs aren’t talented, in fact a couple of young, fresh faces should impress the field this weekend. A good tackler and striker, Hallie Koeppen earned her way onto the starting line. An unfortunate hamstring injury prevented her start against Beantown, and she was a maybe going into this weekend. Her absence would be a blow, diluting the team’s options for mixing up the attack. Nichole Wanamaker has stood out, earning a starting spot and making good use of the 40 minutes she’s been afforded each game.
Berkeley won’t be at full strength either. Backs Irene Gardner and Lucy Croy are scheduled to be in camp with the Serevi Selects, as the USA representative team prepares for the Coral Coast Sevens. 2012 alumnus Vix Folayan is now in Chula Vista with the USA 7s residents, but Nathalie Marchino is now back to fill the void.
“The goal to win a championship is something they can start focusing on now,” Lynch said. “Through the season, it’s one game at a time. We’ll continue to do that – we’re not looking past Berkeley in any way – but in the playoffs, you’re one step closer. Eight games, so this is step seven.”
A big step indeed. Glendale and Berkeley play at 2:15 p.m. ET on Friday.