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Belmont Shore Makes Long-Awaited Return to Nationals

  • 07 May 2019
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Belmont Shore won the DI Pacific South and will represent the Competitive Region at the USA Rugby DI Club Western Regional Championship, May 18-19 in Austin. It’s been several years since the team has competed at this stage of playoffs, and the SoCal side is eager to take advantage of the most recent momentum.

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This year’s team ranged from 10-year veterans to those who had never played a team sport before. The squad turned to leaders like inside center Emily Rodin, a veteran in the backs and one of the top try-scorers; and hooker Jessica Viskantas-Hernandez, who stepped into the captain role when former captain, Allison Kelley, took a long-term injury. The duo oversaw the blending process and allowed a new class of dedicated, athletic newer players rise.

Among the gifted newcomers are outside center Priscilla Gardner, who has developed into one of the top try-scorers and hardest-hitting tacklers. Belmont Shore coach Anita Bradbury foresees big things for the American football convert, who just needs a little more field time to develop that rugby IQ.

“Sydnee Watanabe, flanker, is new to us but not new to rugby. She brings a level of intensity and consistency I’ve rarely seen at the SoCal club level,” Bradbury praised the UC Davis product. “It says something to consistently have rookies in our starting lineup – and not because we ran out of players. I’ve been blessed all season to have good options on the bench.”

The DI Pacific South has three playoff-eligible teams but the season is bolstered by friendlies with San Diego and the Utah Vipers also traveled to SoCal for a double header. In season, Santa Monica was the team’s toughest competition, a relationship that has existed for years.

“Santa Monica has been our long-time cross-town rival. Thankfully inter-club relations have cooled down a bit so there is less animosity now than in the past, but they are still definitely the team to beat,” Bradbury explained.

The Dolphins won the teams’ two regular-season games, 25-24 and 39-36.

“We were plagued by what I call ‘lazy penalties.’ These are offsides, high tackles, and not releasing,” Bradbury recalled. “I think we had sinbinned players in every game due to repeat infractions and at some point were playing 13 on 15.”

Tempe finished 1-3 and thus Santa Monica and Belmont Shore advanced to the Pacific South final, which was contested on April 27.

“Something we worked on specifically going into the last match was staying focused all the way to the final whistle. We can’t get complacent just because we’re up at the half. We need to continue working as a team even when we’re tired,” the coach previewed.

Belmont Shore built a 26-point lead after 30 minutes, as Watanabe, Rodin, Gardner and prop Angela Baker all dotted down tries, and Rodin added the extras. But then the momentum started to change.

“I would say that we actually didn’t improve on our lazy penalties and we started falling into the same pattern as the previous two matches, letting the score slip away,” Bradbury reflected on Santa Monica’s comeback.

Belmont Shore gave up two yellow cards in rapid succession and Santa Monica went to work, scoring four unconverted tries, 26-20 to Belmont Shore with 25 minutes to play. As the clock ticked on, that next score became everything – a potential lead-changer for Santa Monica, or the cushion Belmont Shore needed to close out the win. Belmont Shore had one more hurdle to clear.

“I thought it was the final dagger in the heart when we took a red card for the first time and had one of our more aggressive flankers sent off permanently,” Bradbury returned to those tense final 10 minutes of the match. “But it seems that perhaps that incident was just the fire we needed to battle out the end of the match.”

The whole team came together for that tough victory, and had its leading performances. Watanabe stepped up on either side of the ball and came through with the big plays. Jacque Morales started at scrumhalf after the regular nine took an injury during warm-up, and then played two other positions as injuries and sinbins affected the lineup. Morales’ work rate inspired the team and impressed the staff. Fullback Blanca Morales, Jacque’s sister, secured the back field with several try-saving tackles, while Baker, fellow prop Nickky Nguyen and lock Suzanne Linn took the hard hits in the middle of the pitch and made those hard yards on attack.

Belmont Shore is excited to be heading to regionals, albeit with fewer players due to some season-ending injuries. The team also recognizes that a tidier game will be needed at the next level.

“Belmont Shore has a long club history of high performance, but has just missed the top spot several times in recent years. This is an opportunity for the club to continue the upward trajectory we’ve managed to recapture this season,” Bradbury concluded. “I believe this competition will come down to mental toughness. If we can maintain our poise and focus to the final whistle, rather than just the first 50 minutes, we have all the skills and know how to come home with a big win.”

Belmont Shore will be joined by Houston Athletic, Austin Valkyries and Glendale Merlins in Texas, and the team that goes 2-0 on the May 18-19 weekend will advance to the national championship against the eastern victor in early June in Ohio.

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