This time last year, Grant was lamenting a two-point loss to Beaverton in the Rugby Oregon championship. The league has since divided in two, but the state finalists remained in the club competition together – and good thing, because the Generals received retribution for that close loss with a 41-30 victory in the first-ever club state championship.
“Every single one of them,” Grant coach Eric Zimmerman responded to whether last year’s players held onto that 2015 defeat. “Last year, Beaverton wanted it more and worked harder. Their coach, Greg [Tracy], said his players asked to practice five times per week so they could beat us.”
And once the Lady Barbarians accomplished their goal, the onus to perform shifted back to Grant. But it wasn’t that easy to build momentum. With the league split, Grant lost a valuable opponent in Valley Panthers, which claimed the first varsity state championship with a 37-10 win over Reynolds Saturday. Forfeits peppered the league season – even the first Grant vs. Beaverton match. The aforementioned played out and was competitive, but Beaverton had to combine with North Clackamas for lack of early-season players.
It wasn’t until Grant played Beaverton in late April that the Generals could honestly gauge its progress, but that game day coincided with senior prom, and a handful of key starters were absent. Also missing was Sui A’au, who had hyper-extended her elbow and wouldn’t return to the pitch until the state final.
“We were missing our senior scrumhalf and captain Ruby Weinstein, and had a rookie freshman step in,” Zimmerman remembered the 38-19 defeat. “Beaverton’s scrumhalf ate her for lunch and we couldn’t get the ball out. We tried to compensate by moving Tiana [A’au] into the backline, but that took away from the force of our pack. She wasn’t in the mix like she normally is, she didn’t know what she was doing in the back line, and it turned out to be a detriment. And they outplayed us.”
The loss also showed that Grant needed to fortify its tackling ability.
“Beaverton is huge – 185 lb. Islander girls who can run hard, kick and do everything. That’s intimidating,” Zimmerman said. “We needed to build confidence, and I needed my smaller girls to get that fear out of their heads. They might do alright in practice, but then in the game, they close their eyes and – I call it the ‘junior-high-dance tackle,’ when the arms are completely extended and they think they’re going to bring someone down like that.”
So Zimmerman employed the team’s toughest ballcarriers – the A’au twins, Tiana and Tiara, Jennifer Sipoloa and Sui, when she was healthy – to run full steam at their teammates during training. That was the focus for the previous two weeks.
On game day, Beaverton’s big, barreling runners still found success, but Grant’s ability to tackle those ballcarriers late in the game proved to be a difference-maker. Also a difference-maker, Sui A’au returned to the pitch.
“That kid is something else,” the coach praised the Central Washington commit (who will also be joined by older sister Naomi in Ellensburg, Wash., this fall).
The High School All American sliced her face in two places while barreling through the defense, came off the pitch for repairs, and then returned for an 80-meter try with her face full of blood-soaked butterfly bandages. When inside center Elise Abrams (the main conversion kicker) came off, A’au stepped up and flew into action.
“Everyone was amped up,” Zimmerman remembered the first half. “It was back and forth. Everyone was scoring in the corner because we couldn’t get through the middle.”
Beaverton led Grant 15-10 at the break but started to lose steam in the second half.
Senior hooker and captain Sipoloa continued to lead from the front row and provided a wealth on inspiration as her team battled back from the deficit. The halfback pairing of senior Weinstein and sophomore Ruby Long, though small, continued to hit the angles hard and led a tactically elevated game. Minute Man Award recipient Cait Haley, a senior flanker also not known for her size, led the way in terms of fearless tackling. And newcomer Hayle Meyerhoff, a 5’10”, 170 lb. senior, finally learned how to use her body like “one of those high-speed trains that travels across Japan at 200 miles per hour,” Zimmerman recalled the athletic prop hitting the gaps. Meyerhoff scored two tries late in the game that essentially sealed the win for Grant.
“It was one of those games where, as a coach, it’s 70 minutes of nerves,” said Zimmerman, who relied on assistant coaches Gerard Schneide and Sherri Michl this season. “It’s fun to coach because it’s interesting, but you don’t know what’s going to happen.
“Beaverton’s a great team and they make for great competition,” the coach added. “Last year, I was feeling what Greg is feeling. Even though I was proud of everyone, it’s obviously better when you win.”
There is, potentially, one more chapter before Grant can close the book on spring 2016. Confirmation on the Cup Championship, which pits the varsity and club champions against each other, has yet to circulate. The Valley Panthers are ready to roll on Friday, June 3, but Grant is still polling player availability for this additional fixture. Should the game come off, then it’s likely that the event will occur in Portland.