Rachel Ehrecke / Photo: Linda Brothers (see more)
Glendale has featured in five of the nine Women’s Premier League (WPL) championship finals, winning titles in 2014 and 2015, and finishing runner-up in 2012, 2016 and 2017. The 2018 Merlins are familiar, even with the influx of collegiate talent and a new head coach, and have picked up speed after a solid home-opener against Berkeley, which has also featured in five national finals.
“We have an interesting team this year; it’s a lot younger than last year’s team,” said Glendale captain Sarah Chobot. “There are a lot of the old pieces still and lucky for us they’re in big decision-making areas, so that really helps us. We have a ton of new talent that can slot in and just run around be athletic.”
Halfbacks Jenny Lui and Hannah Stolba are among the important “old pieces,” and that Glendale style of play is further represented in long-timers like Jeanna Beard, Christen Suda and Joanna Kitlinski. There’s a host of players who are in their third or fourth years with the Merlins, including Amandine “Chatty” Chatelier of Bordeaux, France, and No. 8.
“Maya Learned from Harvard has been a huge add-in,” Chobot said of the new front row. “Rachel E[hrecke] has been very good. She’s from Penn State, and so is Gabby Cantorna. She hasn’t made her debut yet but that should be coming. We have a lot of young players from last year stepping up, too.”
Ehrecke, who was a center for Penn State, has started at strong-side flanker all three games this season. Kelsie O’Brien, who debuted for Glendale while a senior at the Air Force Academy, and Davenport University’s Danielle Ordway and Hannah Tennant have also broken into the WPL side.
All of these elements are coming together under new head coach Luke Gross, who is well assisted by Jamie Burke and Mose Timoteo. But the season got off to a rough start.
“It was a really good wake-up call in a lot of ways. We needed to do more work, particularly around the breakdown,” Chobot said of the 31-22 loss to San Diego in California. “San Diego did a great job making us look soft around the breakdown. We’ve spent the last two weeks adjusting that.
“Everyone was kind of surprised and shocked; we painted ourselves into a corner in week one,” the captain continued. “It’s hard to come out of the West. Even two losses can keep you out [of the final four].”
At present, Berkeley, Glendale and San Diego are jostling for those top two spots in the Blue Conference standings, but Chicago North Shore has been coming on strong during these past two home games, and ORSU is never a team to be discounted.
“Against ORSU, everyone cinched their buckles up a notch or two,” Chobot said of the week two match-up in Portland, Ore. “You could kind of see us getting comfortable in a new pattern. Structurally we’re the same; it’s little adjustments, like different verbiage, different player combinations. Maybe last year you knew this player would run an under line, but now this year with the new players there are some question marks on how they’ll react.”
Chobot scores off the maul. / Photo: Linda Brothers (see more)
As the familiarization process continued, Glendale took home its first win of the season: 46-14 over ORSU. New USA 15s head coach Rob Cain was also in attendance. Last weekend marked the Merlins’ first home game, which was contested inside Infinity Park. Having the opportunity to play in the stadium always generates energy, which was needed against Berkeley.
The All Blues entered Saturday’s game with three-straight wins and brought a good team to Colorado. A couple of lead changes, yellow cards and injury subs marked the first half, and Glendale entered the break up 20-14. Chobot and MVPs Ehrecke (2) and lock Charley Thompson scored the tries, while Berkeley’s Evan Hoese and Serena Liu dotted down. Sam Miller’s conversions kept it close at the break.
An All Blues yellow card right after halftime gave prop Melissa Polheber the momentum to score, and then Stolba dotted down with the player advantage, 34-14 with Stolba’s conversions. Eagle hooker Katy Augustyn scored minutes later to pull Berkeley in closer, but then a steady flow of reserves took the pitch to close out the match. Overall fitness looked good, and wing Justine Wypych and flanker Kitlinski scored in the fourth quarter, 46-21, with Stolba’s conversion.
Chobot had nothing but praise for Berkeley, noting a very physical game that felt much closer than the 25 points that separated the teams on the scoreboard. The Eagle prop noted centers Hoese and Cathy Cai as being particularly tough to handle.
“We were definitely happy with the win,” Chobot said. “Our starting point [this season] was below where we wanted to be, so we’re trying to catch up to where we wanted to start.”
Glendale made good ground in that pursuit and now heads to Chicago North Shore to finish out the first half of the season. Although North Shore is looking for its first win – the team is also reorganizing under a new head coach, Parisa Asgharzadeh – the team has proven very difficult at home. North Shore lost a 36-29 contest to Berkeley and 24-10 decision to San Diego.
When Glendale and Chicago North Shore meet for a second time on Oct. 20, it will be in unique circumstances, as the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series will be in town for the new Glendale stop. The Oct. 20-21 tournament will occur at Infinity Park, and the Merlins will host its WPL match outside the stadium at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
That weekend will also be the final regular-season weekend for the WPL, which will then gather in Atlanta for the championship on Friday, Oct. 26 and Sunday, Oct. 28.
Click here for the WPL point-scorers to date as well as current standings.