Danielle Robottom played No. 8 and inside center when numbers dropped.
Ventura and O.P. Lightning met each other early in the DII Pacific South season. The Tucson side triumphed 5-0 and hopes for a rematch followed both teams into the league final. The Outlaws traveled to Arizona with 16 players and finished the game with 13 on the pitch, but, remarkably, won 28-18 for a berth to the DII national quarterfinals.
Numbers, especially on the road, has been an on-going issue for Ventura. Player-coaches Julie Gould and Danielle Robottom and lock Corey Lott just focused on building a Tucson-tailored game plan based on the players they had.
On Saturday, the Lightning struck first, as Jessica Szakacs dotted down four minutes in for the 5-0 lead.
“They definitely put us on our heels a bit, but we just shook it off,” Gould said. “The rest of the half was more in our favor, and we had some good momentum into the half.”
Inside center Gould scored Ventura’s first three tries, two in the first half. With scrumhalf Desiree Leaupepe’s conversions, the Outlaws were up 14-5 at the break. And that’s when things started to get difficult. Wing Jill Brownfield had been subbed out with a knee injury early in the first half and lone sub Kimberly Escobar took her place. During the break, wing Suzy Kwon felt dizzy and had to come off. Down to 14 players, Ventura was still able to score – another Gould/Leaupepe combo – five minutes in for the 21-5 lead.
During the third quarter, Leaupepe took a knock and was a little wobbly, so the referee ended the scrumhalf’s day.
“It’s hard to lose players, especially in a championship match, but you don’t want to mess with injuries,” Gould said. “It could have negatively affected us, but it just added fuel to the fire. Everyone picked up slack and played with so much heart and determination.”
Flyhalf Katie Sellers moved to scrumhalf and Gould slid over to #10. Robottom rotated from No. 8 in the scrum to inside center to jumper in the lineout depending on which side of the ball Ventura was contesting. Ventura played without a strongside wing, opting for the weakside coverage given Lightning’s proclivity for short-side attacks.
“Our style of defense – a smoke defense – accounted for not having numbers,” the co-captain explained. “You slide out, shift them to the sideline, and don’t play aggressively until you have matched numbers.”
Lightning scrumhalf Ria Joseph took advantage of a gap for a breakaway try, and inside center Amber Jones added two penalties within 10 minutes of each other. Ventura flanker Vanessa Alvarez broke up the scoring with the Outlaws’ fourth try, and Sellers added a conversion. Even though the home side had the extra coverage, MVP Alvarez drew the defense with hard runs, as did outside center Yui Kawakatsu out wide. Both played aggressive games.
All scoring ended by minute 65. somehow, Ventura kept O.P. off the scoreboard for the 28-18 win.
“It’s hard to single out players in a match like this,” Gould considered outstanding performances on the day. “When you’re down to 13 players, you can’t depend on any one person. I can’t take away from the fact that everyone played with everything.
“Of all the ways to win, this is just perfect,” Gould said. “This is the kind of momentum and mental strength you want to see at the end of the season and going into regionals. We always had expectations of returning to nationals, despite finishing third in the league, playing an undefeated club and having to travel. We had the confidence. We knew we just had to do the work.”
Ventura will return to Tucson for the third time this spring for the national quarterfinals May 21-22. At this juncture, the goal is to travel with numbers.
“Coming with 16 and going down to 13 – in an emergency situation, we were able to make it work,” Gould said. “We won’t be able to do that at regionals. It’s a concern. We haven’t had the same starting lineup in any match, but we also don’t depend on any one person for a victory. Our expectations remain the same.”