Newcomers Shi, Hunkin-Clark, Schneeman, Banford, Johnson, McFall / Photo: Tim Zern
The Seattle Saracens struggled in the British Columbia Rugby Union (BCRU) last season, going 6-10 to finish last in the Canadian Women’s Premier League (WPL). But some shifts in both coaching and personnel saw the Pacific Northwest program make positive gains in the fall, and that confidence gained will come in handy during a very tough spring season.
Lance Pruett joined Seattle’s staff when he relocated to the left coast and was promoted to head coach for fall 2018. He’s one of six coaches for the women’s team, which has also rebuilt its numbers.
“We had a wonderful pre-season meeting in August and really got buy-in from the start,” said Seattle assistant coach Tim Zern. “Now we’re averaging 32 players at every practice. It’s incredible.
“A lot of it has to do with the system that Lance put in place,” Zern considered factors influencing numbers. “Players really enjoy and are excited to have a voice and to express themselves in regard to selections.”
Those bonds took a unique shape this year, as Headmaster Pruett introduced the Seattle Saracens School of Rugby Magic, a la Harry Potter. The Sorting Scrumcap placed players into one of four houses – Huffleruck, Ravenmaul, Scrummerin, Gryffinscore – and members have opportunities to earn points throughout the season. The House Cup will be awarded at the end of the term. That injection of joy has helped returners reset after the disappointing 2017-18 season.
“Last season was a very rough season for players and coaches,” Zern said. “There was a lot of turnover and retirements and just players deciding to take the fall off after a very busy summer – when [several Saracens helped Atavus Academy win] the [2017 7s] national championship – or the World Cup in Ireland. So we started last fall very low in numbers and were never really able to build momentum throughout the whole season.”
Zern pointed to backs captain Mackenzie Garrett, and Austin transplant and forwards captain Francine Bray for setting the tone this fall. They and fellow veterans have been crucial in setting expectations and offering feedback to a slew of young talent. This fall much time was spent on a new attack and defense, and the squad used its opposition – which ranged from the Canadian Premier teams, to BCRU Division I, to USA Rugby Division II – to get comfortable with new vocabulary and systems.
“The coaches are really excited. It’s a such a wonderful opportunity for coaches to have to make difficult selections,” Zern highlighted Seattle newcomers like Jill Schneeman, Megan Banford, Christa Banks and Lili Shi. “There’s new talent, new depth, and we’ve refilled the team with incredible players from all over.”
Two local products in Kayla Hunkin-Clark (AIC grad) and Jenny Johnson (Central Washington grad) drew praise from Zern.
“She was a big impact player in the fall and also had some looks for the Eagle player pool,” Zern said of Hunkin-Clark. “And Jenny has been fantastic. She’s 6-7-8, has an incredible work rate, great skills, and just humble and coachable.”
“Darby McFall is a recent Chico State graduate and we convinced her to move up here,” Zern continued. “She just killed it in the fall. Absolutely incredible defensively and in the open field. She’s plays 12 for us and is a fantastic finisher.”
One of the team’s best finishers also got the opportunity to travel with the 15s Eagles during the November tour.
“Jennine Devereaux had a fantastic fall and really blossomed,” Zern said. “She blew up on the big stage and I’m excited to see what will transpire with her.”
Finau Tamaivena also earned her first USA 15s cap, and Kristine Sommer joined the Eagles once they relocated to England. Sommer spent the fall with the English Harlequins and competed in the Tyrells Premier 15s league.
“One of the first things recruits ask is, ‘How do we get seen? How do we stay visible,’” Zern addressed the challenges associated with not competing in USA Rugby 15s competitions. “But we’ve proven that we’re a pathway. Kelsi [Stockert], Finau, Pony [Sommer] – this was their stepping stone to that next opportunity. We compete at the BCRU which in my humble opinion is as good as or better than the [USA] WPL.”
Seattle was also reassured in its visibility when new USA 15s coach Rob Cain visited the Saracens during his American WPL tour. Zern asserted that everyone in attendance, players and coaches alike, appreciated that first interaction.
“I was a complete stranger to him and he walked right up and introduced himself, and asked questions about the players and of the players,” Zern said. “So many times you have these high-level coaches and they don’t really care what you have to say; you just have to listen to them. Everyone was really impressed with him.”
Seattle is comfortable in its space right now, but it took a few years to get there. The Saracens had been trying to arrange a home-and-away series with Life West, but now that the Gladiatrix have won their way into the U.S. WPL, that relationship will be tougher to realize. Nevertheless, coach Zern believes there’s potential for higher-level rugby in the region.
“I think there’s an opportunity for a women’s West Coast Cup,” Zern foresaw a competition that involved the best teams from the BCRU, Pacific Northwest and NorCal. “I think it could be pretty amazing – that’s my dream.”
Seattle contests the first game of the BCRU Premier season, hosting University of British Columbia on Jan. 12.