The Empire GU is in the process of naming its DII club champion, who will then face Providence for the Atlantic North title and berth to nationals. The teams contested their entire league season in the fall and thus knew their spring quarterfinal opponents for months. Last Saturday, the field narrowed down to four, and by this weekend, two will remain.
Of all the quarterfinal results, Brooklyn’s 22-10 win over the Village Lions was particularly notable. The team had dropped both league matches to the Lions, who have traditionally held the edge on the scoreboard, and Saturday’s win highlighted an overall shift within the club’s outlook on commitment.
Nora Westcott played with Brooklyn for four years, serving as captain before transitioning to head coach when the vacancy presented itself at the end of last spring.
“In the past, it’s been more social. We weren’t big on commitment. People didn’t have to show up for practice to get playing time. We struggled for numbers,” Westcott lent some background. “And then over the summer, we decided to make a change. Of course you want to have fun, but we wanted to make a commitment and hold ourselves accountable, and see how far we could go.”
Brooklyn revived its summer 7s program and that activity brought fitness to the forefront of the team’s consciousness. Even those who weren’t playing 7s received the workout communications and knew how their teammates were ramping up. Brooklyn won the Monmouth 7s social trophy and that lent a boost of confidence heading into the fall 15s season.
Strategically, Westcott and the team leadership focused on aspects of the game that it could control: fitness, mastering of basics, mental toughness.
“There are really good teams in our division, and great athletes and tremendous rugby players who have a lot of experience. Our team is predominantly young and new people,” Westcott said. “My goal as a coach: It’s fine if other teams have more skilled or gifted athletes, but we’re going to be as fit as any other team out there. If you’re going to beat us, then you have to play a full 80 minutes, because we’ll be fit and still 100% in those last 10 minutes when silly mistakes often happen.”
That dedication extended beyond the pitch, as the team started to talk more about the importance of proper sleep, eating habits and internal communication in the lead-up to games.
“We talk about being the best version of ourselves on game day … and all of those little things add up,” Westcott said.
“The fall evolved in a way that it hadn’t previously,” the coach continued. “We went 4-2, and the year before it was 2-4, so that was a big difference for us.”
Those two losses went to the Lions, but they were competitive games that showed there wasn’t much between them. The teams drew each other for the spring quarterfinals, and Brooklyn needed little motivation to continue training during the winter. The playoff game was certainly circled on the calendar but Westcott explained that it wasn’t necessarily the main driver heading into the new year.
“Obviously we were looking at playoffs and that’s important, but in general, I see the spring as an opportunity to get new players playing time,” Westcott said. “We had three games before our quarterfinal, and new players got a lot of minutes. It’s exciting for the team to have numbers grow – we have 20-30 girls at every practice. Everyone was excited to have this opportunity to play the Lions in the playoffs, but for the season, we just want everyone to get better. I try not to focus on just one game, because anything could happen. The field could suck or we take injuries or there’s bad weather – so we just try to end the season better than we began it.”
On Saturday, the Lions exerted a ton of pressure in the first quarter, keeping the majority of play in Brooklyn’s end. Fifteen minutes in, Lions prop Quin Works scored for a 5-0 lead.
“Not that we were flat-footed but we weren’t coming out as aggressive as I had hoped for that first 20 minutes,” Westcott said. “But it’s a testament to the hard works this team’s put in. Past Brooklyn teams would have folded under the pressure, but everyone stayed positive and pumped each other up.
“Then something clicked,” the coach continued. “We started going at them lower in the rucks, hitting them more aggressively and getting the ball out quicker. After a few phases of good pod play, we’d get the backs the ball and move it down the line and into space, and we could hang.”
Brooklyn newcomer and former Tulane No. 8 Lily Wissinger scored in the 19th minute and had a solid day overall. Brooklyn took the lead, permanently, in the 33rd minute when the ball moved wide to wing Maggie Ewen, who scored the first of three tries on the day, 12-5 with Desirae Schneider’s conversion.
“The Lions are a really good team. Really experienced rugby players and really aggressive. They know their game plan and stick to it,” Westcott said. “As long as I have been on the team, we had never beat the Lions, so it was a mental thing with us. We would get close but never believed that we could do it. Once we started really putting in the work at practice and saw how hard we were working, we really started to believe we could win.”
Captain Max Soo set the tone defensively, doing good work in the rucks and finding seams off the scrum for quick breaks. Hooker Robyn Martinich, who’s been on the team the longest, was also influential, setting up forward pods and penalty plays, and leading attitudinally. Wissinger and rookie lock Melissa Braccia also injected a ton of punch to the pack play.
Halfbacks Tiffany Perez and Emily Mason managed the game well, digging the ball out of breakdowns and moving it down the line and into space, where Ewen thrived. The wing scored in minutes 47 and 55 for a 22-5 lead.
In the 68th minute, Lions wing Katlin Davis dotted down, 22-10, ushering in those final 10 minutes for which Brooklyn has prepared. The teams emptied the reserves, and Brooklyn withstood for the win.
“At first, I think everyone was stunned. None of the players on the field had any concept of time, even though I was telling them,” Westcott said. “The majority didn’t know what the score was, so when the final whistle blew, Brooklyn people on the sideline ran on the field yelling, and that’s when everyone realized: Oh crap, we won. Everyone started screaming and yelling; it was an amazing feeling.”
Brooklyn will host Uticuse – which also won a thriller, 31-24, over Danbury last weekend – in the semifinals this Saturday. Morris, which beat Long Island 55-12 in the quarters, will host Monmouth, which was unable to contest its playoff game against Rochester due to field conditions. This Saturday’s winners will get a week break before contesting the Empire title on April 27.
As for Brooklyn, the team’s going to stick to the concepts and mentality that have seen it to this point in the post-season: Focus on itself, work hard, and be grateful for another opportunity to step on the field and see what its best looks like.