Photos courtesy NOVA Women’s Rugby Facebook
Northern Virginia (NOVA) is heading to its first USA Rugby DI Club National Championship since 2009 and does so with the Eastern Regional Championship title. NOVA overcame Metropolis and Raleigh to advance to the June 1 final in Obetz, Ohio, and now readies for the West’s Austin Valkyries.
NOVA entered the DI Club Eastern Regional Championship with little knowledge of its opponent, the Midwest’s Metropolis. The roster reflected several veterans with high-level experience, some outside speed, and two stellar coaches in Martha Daines and Sue Whitwell.
“That right there was enough for us to be very concerned,” NOVA head coach Brian Walker confessed.
“I was worried we might have pushed a little too hard at our final practice before the weekend,” the coach reflected on the two weeks of tough training sessions. “Luckily, our team came out really focused and that helped us to get on the front foot a little bit.”
NOVA took a 20-0 first half lead and saw scores finish through its backs. The Valkyries kickstarted the second half with a try and also accounted for the game’s final try, but NOVA added another 24 points for the 44-10 win.
“But whatever the final score might indicate, it was never an easy game,” Walked asserted. “I think the collective defensive commitment we had was crucial. With a team like that you never want to give them momentum, and with the exception of three minutes to start the second half and three minutes near the end of the match, we had a really strong defensive performance.”
Walker also credited the team’s depth, which was imperative on a 90-degree day. The Virginia team was perhaps better acclimated to those conditions than the Minnesota side, and the fresh legs in the second half made a difference.
“That’s a testament to our players and to the heavy prep work that Fred Bardot and Lance Connolly have done for us,” Walker pointed to the staff. “Fred is our director of player development and Lance is our A side forwards coach. They are the best at what they do and I am lucky to work besides them. They are obsessed with technical details and they demand that the skill work be done right.”
On the other side of the bracket, Raleigh leveled Midwest champion Detroit 89-0 on Saturday. The Venom were able to rest players early and then set the pace for Sunday’s final against NOVA – a rematch of the DI East championship. Shawn Gatewood broke free for three tries and with Chelsea Garber’s conversions, Raleigh led 21-8 after 30 minutes.
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“We got off to a bit of a rough start that day,” Walker recalled. “Raleigh and Metropolis are two very different teams stylistically and we spent a lot of time getting ready for the Valks. It took some time to recalibrate to Raleigh.
“We could have quit down 21-8 but we clawed back to 21-20 by the half,” the coach added. “That’s the thing I’m probably most proud of.”
Flanker Ashley Mackenzie (2) and substitute wing Sierra Parks scored tries, and scrumhalf Bri Kim added a penalty and conversion. With one point the difference, it was either team’s game to take, and again, NOVA relied on its depth to pull away.
“One of the things I really love about this group of players is the unselfishness,” Walker praised. “Every player wants to play 80 minutes. But in order to win two games in a weekend against high-level opposition, you have to have an ability to rest people at times. We have some really good players at some positions who split time, or occasionally don’t get into a match, because of other position needs, or match-ups, and they never complain. They realize that to make it to the level we are at now, it has to be about what is best for the group.”
Katie Lutton, Sarah Cokingtin and Stephanie Iacobucci came off the bench at halftime and intensified the attack and defense. The trio worked hard around the pitch and made sure Raleigh’s surge at the fourth-quarter mark – when Lisa Jackson scored to make it 34-26 – didn’t build into a rally. NOVA outscored Raleigh 31-5 in the second half for the 51-26 victory.
“It seems like we have a different woman of the match every week. One day it’s a forward. The next day it’s a back,” Walker thought on memorable performances. “Two weeks ago it was flanker Elizabeth Wilson scoring two tries against Raleigh in the conference final. On Saturday against Metropolis, [Stephanie] Barros and [Christina] Metzmaier had two tries apiece out on the wings. On Sunday, Ashley ‘Kiwi’ Mackenzie scored a hat trick while playing a half at flanker and a half at hooker. Sierra Parks came off the bench on Sunday at a time when the game was still very much up in the air and scored a try to end the first half and one to open the second half. You can’t script this stuff.”
In the middle of it all was Bri Kim at scrumhalf, controlling play and deploying a really nice kicking game in open play and off the tee. Just when it felt like the game was leveling up, Kim sent a box kick down field or slotted another penalty to keep the scoreboard ticking over.NOVA is the DI Eastern Regional Champion and advances to its first national final since 2009, when the Women’s Premier League formed and the San Diego Surfers were still in DI. NOVA’s final opponent, the Austin Valkyries, are heading to their first-ever national championship and are riding high after the Western Regional Championship (read more).
“We know Austin is a quality opponent. They have several former NOVA players who play with them and we played them in Gold Cup a year ago,” Walker noted some familiarity. “I think there is a mutual admiration and respect there. We know they beat Raleigh in Gold Cup this spring and had to survive a grueling schedule to get here, just like we did. We know they are mentally tough and resilient, they had to fight their way back against Glendale, just as we did against Raleigh. … I think both teams are going to show up ready and put on a great show for the fans.”