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3 Points Separate UCSB and Grand Canyon

  • 18 Feb 2019
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Jeff Dalton photo

As the DI Pacific Desert season progressed, it became clear that Grand Canyon University and UC Santa Barbara were the teams to beat once again. Still undefeated by week five, last Saturday’s game in Arizona was to determine the standings topper. It took four lead changes before a victor was declared, and UC Santa Barbara traveled the 500 miles how with a 32-29 win.

“We’ve been targeting this match since before the season started,” UC Santa Barbara coach Zac Winer said. “I told them it might even feel like a whole different sport because of the higher level we’d have to play at to hang with GCU. We didn’t change our game but wanted to do everything better, starting with tackles, rucks and carrying the ball into contact.”

That focus on physicality evolved after last year’s post-season. UC Santa Barbara started 2018 by winning its first five games and then went 1-4 in the second half of the season and playoffs.

“I really blamed myself for the poor showing because I hadn’t prepared the team for the higher level of physicality that the top programs perform at,” Winter referenced spring 2018 losses to Grand Canyon, Stanford and Chico State. “So we really focused on being stronger and more aggressive in contact. We’ve done more live scrimmaging in practice, and our improved depth has allowed that.”

Squad depth and experience have been improving the previous 3-4 years and it’s a process that began before Winter took over as head coach. Former head coach Fred Waititi and current backs coach Tim Lewis initiated the turn-around, and Winter has been instrumental in continuing the trend.

“A lot of credit needs to go to seniors Carolyn Gallays-Stapor, Jasmine Guevara and Miranda Nillo,” Winter praised the fourth-years. “They were here when the team averaged eight women at practice and often less than 15 to games. They’ve provided a core to build off of. We’ve added a lot of talented players but credit goes to them for coming out and sticking with recruiting and giving us a base. And the players look to them for their leadership.”

Captains Naomi Carrillo at inside center and Molly Yoon at No. 8 lead the on-pitch experience, and were in charge as UCSB enjoyed a successful pre-season. After Scrum by the Sea and Battle by the Bay tournament titles, which included victories over Chico State, Cal and Stanford, the team traveled to UC Davis for a friendly and big win.

“We know they’ll be a lot different in the playoffs, but it was good to beat them,” Winter said of the Pacific Mountain powers.

Those victories gave UCSB good momentum into the 2019 league season, and the Gauchos beat UCLA, CSU Northridge, Arizona and Arizona State. Grand Canyon had posted big scores in its three league wins as well.

“We scored early, in the first minute, and that was a big boost for us,” Winter said of Carrillo’s try. “But GCU has very talented players and they were able to score, too.”

Winter indicated that the teams played similarly – straight-up rugby – and the majority of the game was a back-and-forth affair. UCSB took a 10-point lead as wing Lauren Thunen converted Carrillo’s try and then added a penalty. Grand Canyon then answered with three-straight tries through inside center Taylor Marasco, fullback Sarah Lawson and hooker Akenese Tito. An Erin Eschbach conversion gave the home side a 17-10 lead.

During the final 10 minutes of the half, Carrillo and Thunen crossed, and the wing’s conversion put the visitors back up, 22-17.

Approximately 10 minutes after the break, Grand Canyon wing Taylor O’Connell tied it up with a try and wing Natasha Opoku handled the extras for the 24-22 edge.

“It was pretty close toward the end of the game, and the scrum helped us a lot. We were able to steal some of their put-ins,” Winter said. “Our whole game plan was to keep possession and keep the ball out of their hands, because we knew how dangerous they’d be otherwise.”

Flanker Elise Bonfiglio and No. 8 Yoon scored at the 60th and 70th minutes, putting UC Santa Barbara ahead 32-24. At the death, Grand Canyon lock Amberae Falemalu dotted down for the 32-29 final.

“They were very happy for the win but we still have more season to play. I didn’t want us to celebrate too much but they really earned it and we’re all happy,” Winter said. “They know we have bigger goals than winning one league match. Last year, it was to make playoffs and we did. This year is to win at [spring] playoffs, but we understand we have more games to play – UCSD this weekend and then conference playoffs, where we will mostly likely meet GCU. It’s not an easy task to beat them twice.”

UCSB is hosting the DI Pacific Desert playoffs, a final four, on April 6-7, and the conference champion will then head to the spring regional championships on April 19-21.

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