Southern California was treated to a fantastic DI club final, as reigning champion Santa Monica took on standings leader Belmont Shore last weekend. The teams had split regular-season games, and the rubber match was to determine which team would represent the region at the DI national quarterfinals in Tucson.
“When we lost to them a month ago it was not under the best circumstances,” said Santa Monica coach Erica Sin. “We thought there were a few questionable things, but it’s always a physical game. They have continually gotten better as we’ve gotten to know them, but we knew we could have beaten them the last time and wanted to prove it this time – we both wanted it.”
Familiar with each other’s attributes, both teams crafted specific game plans to nullify each other’s relative strengths. For Belmont Shore, that meant pressuring Santa Monica’s dynamic backline, in particular outside center Whitney Vance.
“They did a lot of work in trying to shut down Whitney, who is one of our best players, but fortunately we have a lot of talented people in the backline and made the adjustments,” Sin said.
Alex Walker stood out. Strong, athletic, fast, the wing is difficult to take down, and the Back of the Match proved as much while scoring four tries on the day.
Both teams showcased good finishers on the sideline, and Belmont Shore wing Harley Moeller kicked off the scoring five minutes in. Outside center Elizabeth Simmons kicked the first of her three conversions for the 7-0 lead.
The Dolphins responded with back-to-back tries from No. 8 and Forward of the Match April Rodriguez (whose magic power, according to Sin, is producing ball out of the messiest situations) and Walker, before inside center Jennifer Picard restored the Land Sharks’ lead to 12-10 with a try.
Two minutes later, Dolphins wing Hannah Han scored, and Vance’s conversion gave Santa Monica a 17-12 lead. Although fullback Emily Rodin tied it up 17-all at minute 32, the Dolphins would not trail for the rest of the match.
Walker put down two more tries before the half, and then Vance kicked off the second stanza with a five-pointer. Santa Monica led 32-17 after 45 minutes. During the next 20 minutes, Belmont Shore tallied two converted tries, coming to within one point with 15 minutes remaining.
“They were down by [one] with seven minutes left, and they went for a penalty kick. Their kicker had been money all day,” Sin remembered. “They missed it and we capitalized on that and scored. That cushioned our lead and more or less sealed the deal for us.”
Walker did the honors in minute 75 for the 37-31 win and spot at nationals.
Approximately three-quarters of last year’s championship team is still active, and it boasts a chemistry that is most visible in the backline. The pack has put in a lot of work and is at a place where the scrums and set plays are well set. This spring the forwards have enjoyed a lot of progress.
“We’re going to Tucson with a full roster and high hopes, but it’ll be tough to play Seattle first,” Sin said of the quarterfinal match-up. “Obviously, they’re an elite team and it’s going to be a challenge. We played them last year on the second day when we had some injuries, so we’ll be able to play them with fresh legs. Our goal is to play the best [teams].
“We have to work on not being reactive to everything. We need to do a better job of anticipating,” the coach thought about the next two weeks of training. “That’s one of the hardest things – not just watching what’s happening in front of you but seeing what’s coming up. We just need to play our game as best as possible, and for us, it will start from defense. We need to smother Seattle as much as possible.”
On the other side of the bracket, Red River champion Austin plays the Frontier’s Denver Black Ice. For a full look at the DI national championship bracket, click here.