In the fall of 2011, Utah Valley State University took stock of their team and decided they wanted a run at the women’s DII championship come spring 2012. Only one other team in the Utah union – Utah State – agreed to join UVU in this venture, but the teams were told that a home-and-away series would suffice for a bid to the regional championships.
That information proved false, and since then a series of miscommunications between UVU, their local women’s rep and USA Rugby have seen the team mired in uncertainty and schedule changes.
“That really sucked,” UVU president Sophia Karlsson reflected on spring 2012. “We had won every important game, went down to the Champagne Classic and won the collegiate bracket – we felt it was our year. That’s why we joined ERRFU this year, because we didn’t want that to happen again.”
Utah Valley cruised through league play and took the Eastern Rockies conference title in fall 2012. Karlsson and team believed that the conference title afforded an automatic bid to the Round of 32, but again, that assumption was proved wrong. Utah Valley, along with ERRFU #2 Mesa State, Truman State and Nebraska-Lincoln were all supposed to play at Westerns in late March for the bid to nationals; however, Mother Nature intervened and cancelled the tournament.
Fortunately, UVU was awarded the top seed out of the West (Mesa State took second) and hosted CSU Long Beach last Saturday for the teams' Round of 32 match. Excited for the opportunity, but apprehensive about their lack of preparation, Utah Valley took advantage of Long Beach's forward-centric game strategy and produced a 28-12 win.
Karlsson, a fifth-year senior and No. 8 (who also had a baby two months ago!), credited the backs’ agility and staunch defense for the win.
“We usually play a wider game, but because Long Beach’s biggest weakness was their backline, we sent it to our backs almost every time,” Karlsson said. “Our backs are very mobile, quick and really good on defense. Long Beach couldn’t run a backline phase, and their forward play was pick-and-go off the rucks. They were heavier in the pack, so they played a more crashing game.”
Utah Valley held their own in the scrum – until some substitutions were made in the second half and a flurry of penalties resulted. The home team was also incredibly strong in the lineout, stealing more possession and then sending it wide. Karlsson singled out wing Sharon To, who epitomized the stealth of the team’s backline at wing. She scored several times on Saturday and was a go-to finisher for the squad. Sister Louise Karlsson also had a stellar day at fullback, and Sophia referred to her as a “safety valve” on defense.
“We play great defense, and I think that wins you games,” Karlsson said. “Even if your offense isn’t flashy, you’re able to prevent your opponents from scoring.”
Long Beach’s tries came out of their forwards and resulted from a series of scrum penalties that drove the home side backward. Those errors are a reflection of the lack of depth from which Utah Valley suffers. The team is very young, and the player pool was further depleted this year when the Church of Latter Day Saints - to which many teammates belong - adjusted the age limit to when women may go on their mission, from 21 to 19 years old. Since the fall, Utah Valley has lost three key players and will lose another three to missions this year.
The team is banking as much game time as possible to help rectify that deficiency. After the playoff game Saturday, UVU turned right around and played Weber State that same day. The team has played DI powerhouse Women’s Cougar Rugby (BYU), which is a five-minute drive away, three times this season.
UVU’s next test will be their toughest, as they’re poised to play Washington State in the Round of 16 this Saturday in Palo Alto, Calif. WSU crushed Mesa State 83-7 last Saturday.
“We played Mesa State three times and beat them pretty good,” Karlsson said. “We have better defense than Mesa … although I’m hoping that Washington State isn’t as good [as the score suggests] and Mesa just had a bad day. But we can do it. Our girls have confidence.”
And frankly, there’s nothing to lose. Getting to nationals has been a hard-fought goal of theirs, and this Saturday will put that achievement into perspective, and likely tack a few more goals to the to-do list.