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Budd Bay Rises to Former Heights

  • 13 Mar 2019

Photo: Christie Patient

Budd Bay ended the 2014-15 regular season 9-1 to top the DII Pacific Northwest club league, but then a coaching change followed, as did a dip in competitiveness. Two of the three subsequent seasons were losing ones, but then long-timer Machal Salazar saw an opportunity to revitalize the team, and took it. Last weekend, Budd Bay celebrated a 17-12 win over Bend to improve to 5-1, and with two more games to go, the playoffs are looking good.

Salazar has been representing Budd Bay for 15 years, starting with the U19 Steelheads before aging into the senior team. Younger sister (by two years) and No. 8 Malory followed the same path, as did outside center Echo Duplessis. When the previous head coach stepped down in advance of the fall 2018 season, Salazar embraced the chance to lead as a player-coach and made some fundamental changes within the group.

“The family aspect of the team disappeared,” Salazar reflected on those low seasons. “Girls were showing up whenever they wanted and just not taking it seriously anymore. There was a time when we played most games with 12 players. This year, I was really big on recruiting and bringing back that inclusiveness of rugby – what made me fall in love with the sport.”

Salazar went after recruits with the right attitude, who were positive and accepting, and into the idea of a team being a family. The scrumhalf also talked some former teammates out of retirement, and while they boosted the convivial vibe as well, they also upped the athleticism and competitiveness of the team. As an example, Salazar pointed to 48-year-old Sarah Hulsey, a really smart second row who is quick to the breakdowns, lifts in the lineout, and literally pulls the rookies along.

But the start of the 2018-19 season was far from smooth. A variety of logistical snafus preceded the September season-opener against the Emerald City, the reigning league champion, and a 69-7 result to the Mudhens evolved. But Salazar wasn’t dampened. She saw the foundation for a new team coming together, one that was ready to work on some identified areas of weakness, and keep building.

The Bandits then beat Tacoma 20-17, Chuckanut Bay 36-29 and ORSU 80-10 to round out the fall. The team was supposed to have two months of training before the onset of the spring portion of the season, but snow canceled out the entire second month of practices. After the hiatus, Budd Bay had two training sessions before the March 2 game against Boise United.

“I was really nervous leading into it … but because I took last season off, I didn’t really know what to expect in terms of where teams were really at,” Salazar spoke to the opposition. “In the past, Boise has put up a good fight against us; we’ve seen them in the playoffs before. I knew they had help coaching, so I thought they could be in the same situation as us – turning the team around.”

Budd Bay won 92-5.

“I was shocked,” Salazar reflected on another turning point, one of confidence.

The team rode that momentum into last weekend’s match against Bend, which for the past couple of years, has traded tight decisions and titles with Emerald City.

Photo: Christie Patient

“We used to dominate them constantly, and then a few years ago, they started really dialing down what they were doing and they’ve been a really competitive team against us. They’re super quick to the rucks and play structured rugby,” Salazar summarized. “I knew that, so going in we worked on clearing over rucks, communicating, making sure we spread out the line and set up forward pods.”

Budd Bay succumbed to penalties and knock-ons out wide, and that allowed Bend to build a 12-0 lead in the first half.

“At halftime we talked about these penalties, how it doesn’t matter if we think we’re right or wrong, that we have to play to the ref. If we’re getting called, then we have to stop,” Salazar explained that poaching attempts were being pinged for hands in the ruck. “We slowed things down, tried out some new things, put people in new positions, and just had fun. The first half we were bickering and it showed on the scoreboard. In the second half, we played together, were laughing, and playing our game.”

Photo: Bart Abplanalp

Salazar scored back-to-back tries in the third quarter, and Bend led 12-10 deep into the game. On multiple occasions, the Roughriders had been penalized for not-10 violations during Budd Bay’s quick taps, and another opportunity to exploit that slow retreat came with minutes to go. Attacking inside Bend’s 22 meter, Salazar quick-tapped through another penalty to draw a not-10 and yellow card. A minute later, Duplessis kicked a loose ball off the ground and into the try zone, where the outside center dotted down the game-winning try. Captain and flyhalf Erin Stehr added the conversion for the 17-12 win.

“We were overjoyed. I was so close to tears. We played our game and look what happened. It was kind of surreal,” Salazar enthused. “As a coach, I had run us through everything. I know we’ve practiced everything but you wonder whether it’ll all come together. On the pitch, I’m not the coach; everything goes through the captain. The assistant coach [Maggie McLaughlin] is on the sideline – you have to let go. What we’re doing is working, the style of rugby – we’re a little scrappier of a team – is working. We just have to dial that down and hone that in.”

Photo: Bart Abplanalp

Budd Bay is now 5-1 with two more league games (and a friendly against developing Salem) to go. The top-four teams head to Seattle for the Pacific Northwest semifinals and championship, and the Bandits are in good shape to claim one of those spots. This turn-around season is exceeding expectations.

“Let’s win if we can,” Salazar spoke to the shift in season goals. “I just see such an improvement in players, new and old, and I want to see what we’re capable of. I believe in it so much more.

“I think it would be really cool to see Emerald City again,” the player-coach considered the opportunity to compare itself to the beginning of the year. “My players now believe they stand a chance against them. In the fall, I think everyone was like: This game is not going to go our way. I really hope to get to play them to see how far we’ve come and how far we can go.”

The Pacific Northwest champion then plays the NorCal champion (Sacramento is the current leader) in the Pacific North championship, and the victor heads to the equivalent of the national quarterfinals.

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