Emerald City retained its Pacific Northwest DII club title for the third-straight year, defeating Tacoma and Bend during the Geographic Union’s championship weekend. The Mudhens will now head to Boise, Idaho, on May 4 for the Pacific North Competitive Region (CR) final against NorCal champion Sacramento. It’s a rematch of 2018, and the victor will move onto DII nationals, the western portion of which occurs in Austin, Texas, in mid-May.
Sacramento won that 2018 CR final, and the match provided Emerald City with some key work-ons: Defense, ball possession and the further development of game management.
“The good thing is that we were all clear – the team and myself – on the areas that needed improving,” said Emerald City head coach John Wooler. “We were fully aware that they were going to be a tough team, and that won’t change. … They have size, are physical, but we’re better prepared this year. It’ll come down to us executing in these areas in which we were challenged before, but it will be a closer game – that, I can predict.”
Wooler is big on game awareness – knowing what to do, whether on offense or defense, in certain areas of the pitch, and how to do it. For that on-field guidance, he looks to scrumhalf and captain Jenna Middleton.
“I have to give credit to Jenna. We run a lot of plays off the 9, and the 10, and she really controls the game,” Wooler said. “I’m big on game management and changing tempos depending on where we are on the field, and she has a solid understanding of the game. You expect all the players to understand the strategy, but having a good communicator on the field makes such a difference. When the other team is pressuring, she stays calm and consistent, and can feed the team instruction on how to overcome whatever difficulties we’re experiencing.”
Tactics for better ball possession were also introduced, and will be reiterated during the next two weeks.
“My old coach used to say: Possession creates pressure, and pressure creates points,” Wooler said. “If you don’t turn over the ball and hold onto possession, then you limit the other team’s opportunities to come back. We’ve been working on techniques to keep possession in contact and polishing that in practice. It’s all those little nuances of the game that can cause trouble when compounded.”
Emerald City was reminded of that fact during the final against Bend. The Roughriders dominated the opening 30 minutes of the game, funneling the Mudhens’ mistakes into momentum.
“You need a strong mental game, and when you’re giving up penalties in the first 10 minutes, that causes confusion,” Wooler said of the final. “It challenges the competence of my team, but we adjusted to the ref and made those changes quicker than we have in the past.”
Bend was only able to capitalize with a Xela Goodman penalty, but that 3-0 lead lasted until the 35th minute. Newcomer Emily Zhai – a fast, aggressive wing – and flyhalf Rachel Manning scored on either side of the break (14-3 with Manning’s two conversions), before Goodman dotted down and converted to close to within four, 14-10.
Manning, who directs a really solid kicking game, added a penalty in minute 51, buoying the team with another three points of cushion. The Mudhens then worked its talented bench, who injected pace and tempo just when the team needed it. The final 25 minutes saw Emerald City pull away in the 49-10 victory. The game closed a 10-0 season in the Pacific Northwest, one in which the Mudhens allowed just 29 points against.
In addition to Middleton’s direction, vice captain and flanker Lisa Cooper led a superb forwards performance. The set pieces were solid, but the pack also did well to execute their modified game strategies on either side of the ball. Flanker Patty Smith, who returned from the East Coast, stood out on defense, leading the way in tackle count and really challenging Bend’s midfield attack, especially late in the final.
On attack, wing Sarah Coe stood out.
“Sarah has the experience and consistency that a coach appreciates. She’s a utility back – center, wing – and is always solid. Over the weekend, her focus and experience really showed,” Wooler said.
The Pacific Northwest championship weekend provided the team with the challenge it needed, and now Emerald City has a chance to test the improvements it’s made this past season against Sacramento.
“We want to prove that we can go beyond [the CR final],” Wooler said. “Last year, Sacramento lost [in the national quarterfinals] and that shows us that they can be beaten. … There’s always a solution; you just have to find a team’s weakness and exploit it.”
Don’t expect Emerald City to go after Sacramento’s size and power – the Amazons have that game won – but to strategize around other elements of the game where Emerald City have the advantage.
“For us, the mental game is the number one thing,” the coach added. “We’re bringing a more experience, a more mature team, and we just need to stick to the game plan. When we lose our mental focus we stray from the game plan, but when we have the confidence that it will work, we go into execution mode and just deliver. And that’s when we’re powerful as a team.”