All photos: Jackie Finlan
Saint Mary’s College (SMC) and San Jose State played to a 19-19 tie the last they met, and the Spartans set the tone early in the teams’ West Coast conference semifinal Saturday. But as halftime approached, the Gaels began to dictate and then pulled away in the second half for the 59-22 win. Today, Sunday, SMC plays Fresno State for the conference title and seed into the DII spring regional championships in Irvine, Calif., on April 19-20.
“I didn’t want to give my team too much credit but we had a lot of starters traveling in January and who weren’t here for our first game [against San Jose State],” SMC captain Kristina Tomelloso said of the anticipation for the rematch. “So now that we were all back, most of our starting players, I think we were really confident about being able to give them something they hadn’t seen before.”
But it was San Jose that did the teaching early in the match. Scrumhalf Aimee Ramos made good on a penalty kick, and from the restart, the Spartans began moving the ball to what looked like a forward pod out wide, but instead found fullback Monique Kholstadt inserting at pace for the breakaway try. San Jose led 10-0 with Ramos’ conversion.
An error on the restart set up the Spartans with a 50-meter scrum, but some miscommunication in the 8-pick saw players collide and SMC pounce. A penalty followed, and then big carries from Tomelloso – whose middle name should “damaging run” – Tangi Latu and Andrea Zaragoza made the defense over-commit. The ball moved wide to Erin Walsh for the finish and Danielle Destefano kicked the first of two conversions.
SMC took its first lead after a poach and pop pass to flyhalf Jill Eicher, who made it to the try line. Tomelloso picked up for the dive-over, and is really good about getting her hands free and maneuvering to the ground, where most people would get held up, 14-10 to the Gaels.
San Jose got back into scoring position but an error on SMC’s five meter set up a scrum for the Gaels. The Spartans had the better set piece all day, and a big shove saw Eicher under pressure as the ball came out. She did a fabulous job faking a clearance kick and then tearing through the line on what looked like a breakaway score. But outside center Gabriella Tamagri was on the chase and placed herself in the passing lane between Eicher and her support. Tamagri picked off the pass and fed Kholstadt, who scored, 17-14 with Rivera’s conversion.
This reversal of fortune seemed to trigger something in SMC.
“I think this year has been a little different for the St Mary’s team because we’ve doing really well not losing our head after something gets hard,” Tomelloso said. “So they came at us really hard – similar to the Reno game we played last weekend. We were down in the first half but then we came back. Our team has done a really good job of keeping our head in the game, keeping the confidence up, keeping the work rate up. The other team is good but that doesn’t mean we’re not good, too.”
From the restart, SMC built one long drive, working the phases to the try line for Tomelloso to dive over for the try. Immediately afterward, outside center Ashley Torrecillas swerved around the 22-meter defense for another score, which reserve and regular kicker Katherine Whitley converted.
“I was looking at our team’s stats the other day one of the backs [Torrecillas], it’s only her second year playing rugby and I think she’s already All-American status,” Tomelloso enthused. “She has exploded into this game, and gives every single thing that she has.”
SMC led 26-17 into the break, and the team talked technical fixes as well as keeping the mental game healthy.
“A lot of this is mental: We’re good, but they’re good, so what’s going to happen next,” Tomelloso said. “As for technical fixes, we definitely needed to work on our forwards pod play. For some reason we started really disorganized with those, especially from the beginning of the game. Our forwards were just frazzled or something. We also had to make sure we had our posts and our guards set and then were spreading out on defense and fanning the rest of the line out.”
SMC Walsh, Torrecillas, Whiting, scrumhalf Madison Lane and hooker Hannah Twomey all scored tries, while Whiting kicked the extras. San Jose scored once more in the waning minutes, as a long Kholstadt break put the team in good field position, and a couple of goal-line steals allowed Ramos to dot down, 59-22 the final.
“It’s a weird feeling. Like I wasn’t anticipating it but at the same time I kinda was anticipating it in the sense that my team has been working really hard,” Tomelloso said of officially qualifying for regionals. “We have been going out every game and every weekend with a drive that we haven’t had in past seasons, and I’m saying that because this is my fourth year playing on this team. Watching four years pass, we have this incredible drive al of a sudden this year. And the teams we competed against, it wasn’t going to be an obvious who was going to make it to the end. There were some times when it was 50/50, which makes it even better and more exciting. All that good kind of pressure.”
SMC plays Fresno State for the West Coast conference title today and that will determine seed into the regional championship on Friday-Saturday, April 19-20 in Irvine, Calif. Sunday’s winner will play Long Beach State in the Spring Round of 16, and the runner-up will play Claremont College.