Chico State is heading to the quarterfinal round of the USA Rugby DI College Spring Championship and doing so as the Pacific Mountain Rugby Conference (PMRC) champion. The Wildcats defeated Oregon State 31-19 in Saturday’s semifinal and Stanford 41-22 in Sunday’s final. The Cardinal, too, is heading to the regional championships, the western portion of which occurs April 19-20 in Irvine, Calif.
“It was a little harder than we probably thought, but it was fun. We came together to get it done in the end,” Chico State No. 8 Becky Luedke said of defending the conference title. “It’s not a totally different team [from last year’s spring championship squad]. We did lose some key players, but we’ve had rookies step up into those positions. The dynamic hasn’t been the same, so it’s just different.”
On Saturday, the team tested its adaptability against Oregon State, a big but mobile team with good connectivity, especially through scrambling defense.
“We talked about having confidence going in since we didn’t know much about them,” Leudke said of preparation for the Beavers. “Just play Chico rugby – fast paced, front foot, always getting the ball out quick. We were successful with that but they have some big bodies so we were trying to push a fast pace.”
That pace was felt in the breakdown, where Chico State devastated Oregon State by stealing the Beavers’ quick tap penalties. OSU tried to adjust, reiterating the need for close support, but the Wildcats expertly got their hands on the ball.
“That’s a thing we particularly like doing – turnover ball,” Luedke confirmed. “We like to be disruptive in the breakdown. We love to try to go for the steal and turn it over and get there fast. We practice that a lot.”
But that attribute wasn’t a surprise to Stanford, which had learned its lesson a couple of weeks ago in a big loss to Chico. The Cardinal displayed a penchant for the poach in its Saturday semifinal win over UC Davis.
“We do stick to our game plan,” Luedke said of not tailoring that aspect of the team’s game to the opponent. “But Stanford was quick getting there, also, so if we were by ourselves, they would turn over our ball. So we had to adjust a few things – really be in support and really just be at the breakdown quicker.”
Stanford took the first lead before the squads started trading tries. The half ended 17-all, and then the Cardinal struck first to take a five-point lead early in the second stanza.
“They came hard at us – both in the beginning of the game and then in the second half – and it takes us a little bit to warm up and get going again. I think that was mainly what it was,” Luedke reflected on the swings of momentum. “I think our confidence level was a little bit down, since we were tied. I think we might have been over-confident [coming in] because we beat them the last two times kind of easily. So we just had to regroup after they scored on us, to bring up the confidence, and did a little huddle to make sure everyone was on the same page and focused.”
As the fourth quarter ticked over, Chico State held a 27-22 lead. Luedke then scored her fourth try of the final – barreling through the middle of the pitch and evading tackles on a north-south route to the center of the try zone. When the No. 8 wasn’t dotting over the line, she was one of several players – flanker Jen Brissenden, wing Alyssa Pena, lock Vanessa Somoza – who could break through the defense and get the attack flowing.
“Against Oregon, it was my number 12 – Hannah [Westfall],” Luedke said of her most reliable offload recipient, who was stellar on Saturday and nursing an injury Sunday. “She is always supporting me when I take the ball and that’s who I’m looking for because she’ll be running on. Today it was Ashley [Evans]. She was playing center and she was there for the offload every time.”
Although the team certainly missed Westfall, Saturday’s MVP, the positional rearrangement saw a new wrinkle in the team’s game that exposed Stanford on several occasions. Kelsie Yoder moved over to inside center and handled the majority of the kicking duties. She sent a few crossfield kicks into widely unguarded territory but a couple of bad bounces saw those opportunities fall flat. On the third attempt, however, Pena plucked the ball out of the sky but Stanford’s quick cover turned over the ball in the tackle. Nevertheless, they were good options.
Somoza dotted down the final try, Chico State banked the 41-22 win, and retained the PMRC title.
“I’m excited. After this game I think our team is really gelling with the togetherness and the support,” Luedke said. “I feel like we’re peaking.”
Chico State will now play the Pacific Desert champion (to be determined April 6-7) in the western portion of the DI spring quarterfinals, Friday, April 19 in Irvine, Calif. The team will also play on Saturday, April 20, and face either BYU or Stanford. The team that goes 2-0 in that doubleheader will advance to the DI spring final against the eastern rep on Saturday, May 4 in Matthews, N.C.