Chicago North Shore paid Mother Nature her due, making adjustments for the sloppy conditions, but ultimately remained true to the game plan that saw the Midwest champion to the DI club national playoffs. The discipline paid off, and the club bettered Beantown and Raleigh last weekend for the eastern seed to the DI club national championship.
There was rain and mud and water-logged rugby balls, but Chicago North Shore has prospered through adverse conditions all season. The coaching situation never sorted out, and so the quartet of co-captains Christiane Pheil and Lauren Trout and selectors Nobu Takaki and Lizzy Bristow directed the team this year.
“It’s been a challenge,” Pheil said. “The leaders create the game plan and strategy and adjust it throughout the season, and credit to the players for embracing that. I’m very excited about how united we are right now. That’s where our success comes from – everyone is responsible for everything. Our team culture is at a high and that translates onto the field and through our performances.”
North Shore’s pattern reflects this shared responsibility, and Pheil likened it to the fluidity of 7s, where there are essentially no positions after the set piece and the workload diffuses evenly. The weather conditions slowed down the pace of play, but didn’t force any major alterations to the game plan.
“Obviously we had to make our passes tighter and play more forwards ball,” Pheil said. “But we remained patient and were communicating, and stayed disciplined in keeping space and shape.”
The weekend started against Beantown, which entered the national quarterfinals through the repechage. The Northeast side had fallen to Boston in the regional qualifier and then defeated Mid-Atlantic runner-up NOVA for the final seed to playoffs.
“We went into the game with a chip on our shoulder,” the No. 8 explained. “Last year, Beantown beat us in the Round of 8, so we wanted revenge. That mindset is easy to light a fire under a team, and we were focused and excited. The first 40 minutes were some of the best rugby we’ve played – 1 through 15 were sharp, focused and working on the task at hand. That helped build up momentum and be successful against Beantown.”
North Shore got its redemption with a 29-8 victory (read more on the quarterfinals). On the other side of the bracket, Mid-Atlantic champion Raleigh slugged it out with Boston and prevailed 12-5 for the semifinal berth.
“We had heard good things about Raleigh – they’d been hugely successful this year – but they’re brand new in DI so were a bit of an unknown,” Pheil said. “I was blown away by their power in the scrum and how dynamic and fast the backs were. They were incredible in defense, very good at the breakdown and scrappy. They were good with ball in hand with switches and hitting holes, and challenged us every minute. It wasn’t a surprise – you expect a tough game in the semifinals – it was just that we didn’t know anything about them.”
North Shore scored in the opening minutes, after Trout kicked a penalty to touch and a driving lineout crossed the try line. Wing Gabby Whittinghill made an excellent conversion from a tough angle for the 7-0 lead.
Inside center Jennifer Larrimore, who stood out all weekend, accounted for Raleigh’s first try. The Venom got into good position when flyhalf Chelsea Garber cleared her lines and the chase was quick in pursuit. North Shore’s ballcarrier didn’t release in the gather, and Garber kicked the subsequent penalty to touch and into scoring position. The lineout ball eventually moved wide to Larrimore, who dotted down five points.
Raleigh took a 10-7 lead when fullback Sarah Rosche scored the first of her two tries. She did an excellent job of inserting into the line and stressing the defense out wide. The final lead change occurred when prop Charli Jacoby dove over for the first of her two close-range scores. Both teams showcased excellent goal-line defense, but Jacoby was able to find and hit that seam across the try line.
“The standout of the weekend has to be Charli Jacoby,” Pheil said of the front row. “I can’t tell you how many times she ran into space, offloaded to a wing, and then looped around to get the ball back. She really carried the team.”
Pheil also credited Trout and outside center Kelsey Reed for excelling in a restructured back line. Trout is typically an outside center or fullback, but she moved to flyhalf and did a superb job of organizing the attack and maintaining a flow. Reed bumped out from the #10 spot and did a good job of finding the holes out wide and embracing a playmaker role.
Both sides scored three tries apiece, but Whittinghill’s boot was the difference. She slotted all three conversions, and when Venom was within a converted try (21-15), tacked on a late-game penalty that dampened Raleigh’s hopes, 24-15 the final.
North Shore won the DI championship in 2011, but most recently lost the 2014 title to ORSU before the Oregon team returned to the Women’s Premier League. Now, the Chicago side will travel to Glendale, Colo., in two weekends and look to unseat reigning DI champion Seattle (read more about the Saracens’ return trip to the title bout).
DI CLUB CHAMPIONSHIPQF: Raleigh 12-5 Boston QF: Chicago North Shore 29-8 Beantown QF: Denver Black Ice 34-15 Austin QF: Seattle 37-17 Santa Monica
SF: Chicago North Shore 24-15 Raleigh SF: Seattle 32-14 Denver Black Ice
Cons: Austin 55-36 Santa Monica Cons: Boston 24-8 Beantown
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