Bend striker Kylie Hahn in the tackle /// Welton Photography
Bend is the Pacific Northwest DII club champion, and no one is as surprised as Bend itself. After a thrilling comeback win against Tacoma in the league semifinals Saturday, the Roughriders served then-undefeated Emerald City a 20-15 loss in Sunday’s final. Bend now advances to the May 7 national play-in against NorCal champ Life West in Seattle.
“It’s still a shock. No one expected us to pull it off,” Bend player-coach Zoe Hunter reflected. “I still keep playing that game over and over in my head. It’s been hard to work.”
Oregon State alumna Hunter is one of the founding members of Bend, which formed in 2007. Those early days saw the team play any games it could find – 7s, 10s, whatever the numbers would allow. Today, Bend doesn’t attract a ton of players with previous rugby experience and relies on newcomers to fall in love with the sport and buoy the ranks. The result is a very supportive, welcoming atmosphere that encourages young players to make mistakes and learn from them. The environment helped engender a “comeback kid” mentality, and Bend became comfortable in rallying in the second half.
In its first-ever appearance in the Pacific Northwest playoffs, Bend’s second-half stamina showed itself. In the semifinal, Tacoma led 19-3 after 50 minutes. Hunter’s first-half penalty had put the championship hosts on the board, and then a converted penalty try closed the gap to 19-10. Approximately 10 minutes later, wing Marissa Korthuis scored, and Hunter’s conversion made it a two-point game. And then during the last minute of regulation, reserve Danielle Link crossed for the go-ahead points, 22-19 Bend.
“We started slowly and there were some nerves,” flyhalf Hunter said. “Our last few games have been easier, and Tacoma started hard and came at us really tough. We weren’t on our game but rallied at halftime. We’ve done this before. Our second halves are usually better.
“Some of it is fitness,” Hunter added. “Other teams complain about the [3,600 ft. of] elevation, but we’re used to it.”
Meanwhile, Emerald City had defeated Budd Bay 35-5 to advance to the final. No one had come close to the Mudhens during the regular season.
“We had nothing to lose,” Hunter said of the championship. “We just wanted to go out there, show that we have heart, and that we’re not a team they can walk over. We had that mindset of giving it our all, playing as a team, and leaving it all on the field. Nothing more. No one thought about the possibility of advancing.”
Unlike tradition, Bend set the tone from the kickoff, and fullback Elizabeth Hayden scored in the opening minute. Hunter hit the extras for the 7-0 lead.
“Oh my gosh,” the flyhalf flashed back. “We can actually do this.”
As the game wore on, Bend focused on its ball retention – an issue on Saturday – and making smart decisions in the offload. The team worked to get the ball to some key strikers, like Chico State alumna Kylie Hahn and fullback Hayden, both athletic ballcarriers with defense-piercing abilities. Lock Link and Giselle Faux led the forwards by example, running hard and delivering on physicality.
Bend led 20-5 after 35 minutes, as Hunter kicked two penalties and converted another Hayden try. Emerald City flyhalf Aunnica O’Brien had scored at the 30-minute mark, and wing Abigail Bishop scored the first of her two tries before the break. The Mudhens trailed 20-10 after 40 minutes.
“We were up, but we knew they would keep fighting,” Hunter said. “We just needed to stick together on defense and retain possession of the ball.”
Emerald City sent Bishop across for a try with five minutes remaining, but Bend held on for the 20-15 win and berth to the west coast final.
“All of us were so shocked when the final whistle blew,” Hunter said. “We came in thinking that this was our last weekend of rugby, but we’re so excited to continue playing.”
It was a triumphant weekend for the Roughriders, and now they have a chance to play on the national stage. On May 7, NorCal champ Life West will join Bend in Seattle for the ACR1 championship, which affords a berth to the DII national quarterfinals, the western portion of which will be held in Tucson May 21-22.