In terms of the Pacific Mountain Rugby Conference (PMRC) post-season, it didn’t matter whether Arizona won or lost today’s game against Arizona State. The Wildcats were statistically out of the playoffs, while the Sun Devils were guaranteed a berth. But there was a tremendous amount of pride on the line, as this heated in-state rivalry flared for a final time this spring. Arizona had lost the teams’ first meeting and had to wait more than three months for a rematch, which went 23-17 in the Wildcats’ favor.
Arizona State was favored to win the game and took a 5-0 lead in the ninth minute. The Sun Devils had given PMRC South champion UC San Diego the toughest games of the season. To boot, Arizona was down to 18 healthy players. The 10-game season, exacerbated by a trip to the LVI 7s, challenged Arizona’s depth. Coach Rusty Wortman had to get creative with his starting lineup, like moving No. 8/prop Gabby Grinslade to inside center. But the power runner plays 7s and proved a versatile weapon on the day.
Samantha Calle stepped up in a big way. With the team’s two scrumhalves unavailable, the flanker learned the pivotal position on Thursday and became the starting No. 9 on Saturday.
“She had a breakout day,” Wortman praised. “She was all over the pitch, distributed the ball well, and was fearless in the rucks.”
Arizona found some rhythm after the 15-minute mark and began to catch Arizona State on overloads. Quick hands put wing Tina Aprahamian into space, and the graduating senior scored in minutes 16 and 26. Aprahamian scored a nice individual try to complete the hat trick, weaving through traffic for the score. Jessica Carpenter added a conversion for the 17-5 halftime lead.
ASU put a converted try on the board in minute 50, but then two Carpenter penalties gave Arizona a 23-12 lead with five minutes remaining. The Sun Devils scored in the closing minutes for the 23-17 final.
“Part of it was the rivalry. Part of it was the last 15s game of the season. And part of it was, especially for the newer people, the lights turning on and everything coming together for them,” Wortman explained the win. “The one thing about our team is that it’s very positive. When the chips are down and things aren’t going the way they should, they pull together really well. Even against UC San Diego, when we were down 60 points, we pulled together for four tries still.”
It was a nice way to end 15s, and the Wildcats will look to harness that momentum into the 7s season, which begins after spring break. The team sampled the 7s landscape last weekend in Las Vegas and performed well in the Open division.
“A good portion of them had never played 7s before, and to play AIC as close as we did, and to do as well as we did, it was phenomenal,” Wortman said. “It’s a good stepping stone for the CRCs.”
Arizona will travel out to California for 7s play, training with the San Diego Surfers and looking toward UCSD for some games. Arizona State will join UCLA and UC San Diego in the PMRC post-season. The Tritons, as top South seed, will host Cal on March 26, while UCLA and ASU must travel to UC Davis and Washington State for their crossover knockouts. The four victors (Chico State vs. Washington is the fourth match-up) will advance to the spring DI Round of 8.