The shock of the weekend came out of Southern California’s Gold Coast, where Claremont, in its season-opener, defeated Long Beach State 17-12. There is asterisk on the result, but for now, Claremont is jubilant as only an underdog victor can be.
“Long story short, our match secretary sent out an erroneous kickoff time for 1 p.m. and we notified Long Beach Thursday that it was changed to 11 a.m.,” Claremont coach Evan Wollen explained. “After the match, their head coach informed us they were protesting the game since changing the kickoff time that late in the week is against league rules.”
Regardless of intent, logistical changes affect player availability. Long Beach State’s coach did not respond for comment while the game is under review, so it’s unknown how many players were actually missing for the two-hour-earlier kickoff.
With that said, “It was a great win for us,” Wollen said.
Wollen has been with the team for four years and runs the ROTC program at Claremont. He joined the program when it was at a vulnerable stage, just after a longtime coach had retired. Numbers dwindled, fewer than 10 players were attending training, and the first two years produced winless seasons. Last year, the Foxes beat USC and Occidental, and now the season started with an unexpected win against a league power.
Wollen credits the junior class, which has effected a culture change. It’s attracted more and better athletes, and now training sessions boast 25-plus players, with 35 ready for game day. In particular, flanker Stephanie Wong has been instrumental. She wasn’t present on Saturday (she’s studying in D.C. for the year), but she’s been captain for the previous 1.5 years. Her passion has been the driving force in righting the rugby program. Several players have stepped up to fill the temporary void, including sophomore scrumhalf Joey Yamada and captain Naomi Brooks.
Claremont knew it had to launch every weapon at Long Beach State Saturday, while attempting to contain its difference-makers.
“We were worried about their fullback [Crystal Brown], who is an outstanding runner,” Wollen said. “If you allow her to run over you, she will. We spent the last week of practice working on tackling, defensive positioning and ball retention, and tried to prevent her from getting it in the open field. She scored one try on us.”
But Claremont scored three. Yamada found and took a gap for a pull-away try. Wing Paloma Palmer finished off a nice series of hands, eluding her opposite and sprinting in for a score. And the forwards got on the board after some pick-and-goes at the line, with prop Celia Dattels (who had moved to flanker) diving across.
“Saturday was a hotly contested match,” Wollen said. “Long Beach had two tries held up in the first half. Had they gotten those down, the game would have gone the other way.
“Fitness was an issue. It was the first hot day in L.A., and everyone was hurting during the final 15 minutes. Long Beach scored a try at the death.”
While Wollen was happy to win a close game – one that might turn out to be a forfeit loss – he’s not making any predictions just yet.
“It’s a little early yet to be optimistic,” the coach said. “I’m just happy that hard work paid off.
“The big test is UC Riverside,” Wollen looked ahead. “They’re well coached and fit. We’re technically in their league, but I don’t think we really are. This whole league is tough, though. It’s become very competitive the last few years.”
Claremont faces USC this Saturday, while Long Beach State takes on UC Irvine.