Photos: Jackie Finlan
St. Mary’s College spent last weekend banking its fifth win of the DII West Coast conference season, besting UC Santa Cruz 43-12. The Gaels (5-0-1) are looking good for another post-season berth, and the team is feeling good about its potential to advance.
Tennessee native Jeff Carlile became the St. Mary’s head coach in fall 2015, three years after the women’s team had formed. It had been a struggle for the Gaels, and the season before Carlile had joined the staff, the Moraga, Calif., had gone winless.
“That was a difficult year for them,” Carlile said of the 2014-15 season. “One player had been targeted for injury, purposefully, and they had really mixed feelings about the sport and what they wanted to do. As a club they were very tight, as a sport, they were hopeful.”
With a new coach in place and positivity recirculating throughout the ranks, the team got excited about playing again. Carlile remembers a benchmark from which the team really took off.
“We went to Monterey Bay before the season started, and not too deep into the game, there was a penalty to St. Mary’s,” Carlile recollected. “We kicked to touch, ball went out at the five meter, and we set the lineout. We got the maul driving, scored the pushover try, and I absolutely lost all composure. The fans went wild. It was a great turning point. ‘Hey, maybe we can do this.’”
The team did a great job recruiting that year, and those first-year freshmen are today’s seniors. They make a big impact, and in the middle of it all is No. 8 Kristina Tomelloso. The Dixon alumna is power and strength, and runs on a tilt. Her talents haven’t gone unnoticed, and she’s represented the Women’s Junior All-Americans. She’s currently the second top scorer on the team so far.
President and lock Tiffany Cooper and prop Meagan Mazany are also key players from that recruitment block, as is Brittany Widas, whom Carlile highlighted as the biggest advocate for the sport and on-field guide for the rookies.
Last year was also a very good year for new players. Highlights include Erin Walsh, “who is without doubt the fastest woman I’ve coached,” and also played with the Berkeley 7s team over the summer; and outside center Ashley Torrecillas, who is very quick over the ball and has scored 12 tries so far.
There is a really nice connection between No. 8 Tomelloso, freshman scrumhalf Maddi Lane and third-year flyhalf Jill Eicher. Lane hails from Westside SWARM in Colorado, where 7s is the regular-season version played in-state. Eicher is a Pleasanton product (like her opposite in Saturday’s game, UCSC flyhalf Loren Roundtree) who leads the backs as captain.
Heading into Saturday’s game against the Slugs, St. Mary’s had defeated Santa Clara 85-0, USF 84-10 and CSU Monterey Bay 79-14. Sacramento State forfeited the teams’ season-opener in early December, and the game against UN Reno was cancelled due to weather. In mid-January, the Gaels tied San Jose State 41-41.
“At St Mary’s, the spring semester starts in February and we had two games in January scheduled,” Carlile said. “[January’s] a month of special retrospection and service. Students go overseas to junkets led by faculty members. It’s a blend of service and learning. During those 2 January games I had to do without [five starters].”
Saturday’s game did not start so convincingly. UC Santa Cruz pressured a St. Mary’s five-meter scrum, and the outlet pass into the try zone hit the deck. Five players lurched for the ball but it was UCSC inside center Kristina Bullington who dotted down, and converted.
The UCSC scrum had the edge over St. Mary’s, and there were some nice one-on-one battles – notably Roundtree vs. Eicher, and Walsh vs. Katia Lopez – but the home side was able to score from everywhere on the pitch. Eicher, Tomelloso, Torrecillas, Cooper, Walsh, flanker Andrea Zaragoza and prop Tangi Latu all scored, while inside center Katherine Whiting kicked the extras, 43-12.
“We’re rising,” Carlile said of the program generally. “In a couple of weeks when we host Fresno, that will tell us a lot.
“In 2015-16 we had a good season and went to regionals in [SoCal],” the coach continued. “We went down and played pretty well but we haven’t played anyone out of the conference since then, so it’s hard to gauge where we are. When I look at the talent and how we’ve been playing lately, I’d say this year we have an opportunity to do very well.”
The top four teams in the conference advance to the playoffs, with the higher seed hosting. The site for the conference championship has not yet been chosen.