Mere Baker may be a new coach in the Women’s Premier League (WPL) but is not new to the competition itself. The New Zealander actually played in the very first WPL season and connected with people who have influenced the former Black Fern’s coaching career in the U.S. After working with several entities, men and women, Baker finally returned to the elite league, assuming the head coach role of Beantown for a mid-August start.
“It was a goal of mine to coach in the WPL, so it’s great to come full circle – starting as a player and then coaching in it,” Baker said. “It was on the bucket list, but it’s also a way for me to give back to USA Rugby, which has been very kind to me in my own growth as a coach.
“There have been huge changes over the last 10 years – in the understanding of the game, skill wise – and there are some great athletes. They seem more committed to the WPL, too,” Baker added.
Baker didn’t have any personal connections to Beantown when the head coaching post opened up, but after a few meetings, the two entities found that they fit well together. Baker, however, was stationed in Little Rock, Ark., with ARPTC through the club 7s national championship, and so Beantown and coach had one week together before opening day.
“We were pretty lucky,” Baker confessed of the opening-round win against Atlanta, 17-15.
Beantown and Baker got another week together before flying out to Twin Cities, where the teams played to a 15-15 draw.
“The tie didn’t have any effect on the team other than we put ourselves in a position where we could get knocked out of the top two [in the standings],” Baker said. “At that point we were just getting into our system, but this third week has been really good for us. We have a really good leadership team with co-captains [Claire Stingley and Tatjana Toeldte], and we’ve got on-field leadership that’s really taking control of the team. That’s part of my role: Empower them with the tools to control where the team wants to go.”
Baker indicated that there was no talk of final placing or championships during the team’s initial goal-setting sessions with the new coach.
“We talked a lot more about where we want to be – the culture part and the legacy of Beantown; what it means to wear the jersey and understanding the pride that comes with it,” Baker said. “We weren’t talking wins and losses, and we’re focusing on things we can control – turning up to training, training hard, getting those fundamentals down, and just playing good rugby.”
Last weekend saw some pieces click into place, and Beantown defeated visiting D.C. Furies 52-3 – a scoreline that Baker indicated did not do the Furies justice. Beantown is still experimenting with combinations and saw some newness in the backline on Saturday. WPL newcomer Michelle Omondi, for example, scored four first-half tries from fullback.
“We like to attack the fringes a lot and Omondi is really dynamic,” Baker said of the Kenyan international. “Quick, great footwork, great vision, inserts in the line with pace.”
Baker is excited about Miranda Wakimoto at flyhalf, Australian lock Clare Akauma, and Harvard grad Claire Collins, “who we’ve been playing at prop and is quite dynamic. I was really pleased with her on the weekend,” Baker praised.
And then there are the players like Kimber Rozier and Stacey Bridges who have competed at the highest reaches of the sport and also serve as assistant coaches to two former Beantown internationals: Mel Denham at Harvard and Katie Dowty at Dartmouth, respectively. They pair well with stalwarts like Kat Phelan and Olivia Benzan-Daniel, who’ve helped steered the club through DI and back to the WPL.
Rozier, Bridges, Stingley and ARPTC’s Kelli Smith also scored tries against D.C., and inside center Rozier kicked six conversions. Next up is reigning champion New York, which just dropped a 39-10 game to Twin Cities in Minnesota.
“We’re still going to focus on our systems but we’re going to change a little bit how we play in them,” Baker looked ahead. “New York is going to be solid, and so we’re looking at our defensive line and making sure we’re all on the same page – from our exits, to our set pieces. Again, we take it game by game, and we’re just growing to where we want to go.”
Beantown currently leads the Red Conference standings (11 pts., 51 PD) and New York (10 pts., 3 PD) follows in third. Twin Cities, Atlanta and D.C. Furies all have one win so far.