Kent in New Zealand /// Photo: Beverly Segi
Each team competing in this weekend’s high school club national championship is operating under pressure – whether it’s defending a national title, playing for an injured teammate, or debuting on the national stage. Host Kent is arguably facing the most pressure. After runner-up performances in the previous few years, the Crusaders are the face of the first club version of nationals and are backed by a big hometown crowd.
Kent is feeling good, though. Hosting nationals meant that fundraising efforts could be funneled toward another trip this spring: New Zealand. And that spring break tour to the southern hemisphere more than paid for itself on the pitch.
“New Zealand was an incredible experience,” Kent senior Emily Prentice said. “We pushed and challenged each other in ways we hadn’t before, and that’s translated into a more cohesive team. We’ve had adversity in the second half of the season with injuries and illnesses, but the last couple of weeks, we’ve been getting healthy and looking good.”
The backline has seen some position swaps, most notably scrumhalf Emmy Link moving to the centers. But the veteran’s expertise, field vision and kicking ability have been a welcomed resource in the middle of the backline. Erin Eschbach has grown into flyhalf, and newcomer Keira Kiene-Hoiland has developed into a good decision-maker. In the forwards, Lily Brown has slotted into the loose forwards well, as the back row rotated with injuries.
“We play a style that fits our strengths, and it’s still true to Kent’s form in that it’s a physical and hard-running game. We’ll still rely on our strength and size and structure,” Prentice said. “What I’m really excited about is the decision-making skills that are culminating. Between our 9 and 10, with our fullback inserting into the backline – it’s an exciting game we get to play around with.”
During the state championship two weekends ago, it took some time for Kent to settle into its game, but once the Crusaders synced, 56 unanswered points against Rainier produced a 16th-straight state title.
“The first half was tough,” remembered Prentice. “Rainier played good defense in the first half and we had a hard time getting into our rhythm and finding our pace. It was a good exercise [for nationals] to feel a pressure defense.
“We struggled a little in the first half with repeated infractions,” the Harvard-bound senior expanded. “There were some penalties where we didn’t know what was happening. We took that in stride and just adjusted our style to suit how the game was being officiated. We became more disciplined, cut down on giving the ball away, and in turn had more possession and time to play with the ball.”
Good veteran leadership from players like Prentice, Kaira Martin and Isabel Boettcher, who is heading to Dartmouth College in the fall, among many others, will be crucial in maintaining the team’s composure at nationals, where the pressure with increase tenfold.
“The biggest thing about nationals that is hard to realize, other than the different levels of competition, is that the games are really short,” the No. 8 said. “So on that first day, you have to come out strong and can’t rely on a later push. You have to come out on the same page and firing. That will be mentally hard to instill because we have a lot of rookies, but I have confidence in our leadership team.”
The inaugural club championship will be particularly challenging for those team that don’t advance directly to the final four. With 10 teams competing in Division I, there are a series of play-in matches and games of varying lengths.
“We’ll definitely have to adjust,” Prentice said of the game times. “When you have an extra 30 minutes, you don’t want to come out any less hard or together. But you can use that time to make more tactically aware decisions, like using time in your favor or to make up for something. Or we can go more toward our set pieces, which is one of our strengths, instead of free play.”
The quarterfinal play-ins begin at 9 a.m. Pacific on Saturday, May 21. For more information on the girls high school club national championship, click here. Visit the event website HERE for more background on the event.