Navarrete, seen here against Glendale. /// Photo: Norma Salinas Photography (see more)
It’s only fitting that the Player of the Week is coming out of arguably the game of the weekend. DI Red River leaders Austin and Houston looked to snap each other’s undefeated records last Saturday, and a try-trading affair unfolded. Houston won the possession game, but Player of the Week Karla Navarrete did well to use the wind and kick Austin into advantageous territory. That management aided the Valkyries’ 27-22 win over Houston.
“Houston has a very good offload game that puts a lot of pressure on defenses, especially if they don’t adapt to squeezing in on the ball,” Austin president Francine Bray said. “They’ll get three or four offloads in a row, and all of a sudden the defense is scrambling to stop that support runner instead of resetting the line after every tackle. They have more continuity than most teams.”
Consequently, Austin did not spend much time on offense and relied on its defense to produce opportunities. When those changes of possession did occur, flyhalf Navarette did well to use the wind and kick for territory. She managed the conditions, connected well scrumhalf Brenda Ramirez, and put Austin in advantageous field position.
The Valkyries set the pace early and sent Claire Tilton across for the game-opening try. The teams exchanged scores, with Mackenzie Lockwood-Meier and later Kirby Delgado dotting down for Austin. The turning point occurred in the second half, when a 10-minute delay was necessitated for an injury. Once play restarted, Bray barreled across for two tries.
“That really helped our momentum then,” Bray said. “There were 18 minutes left at that point, and that really helped reignite our charge and pump us up so we could fight until the end.”
Austin got some good work out of newcomers like Eagle Sara Parsons, who moved from her regular home at No. 8 to have a run in the centers. She exerted a lot of pressure on the HARC backs, making them work harder. The loose forwards enjoyed the introduction of Texas grad Julia Fortkort, who spent some time with NOVA before returning to the Lone Star State. She’s coming off of knee surgery but is on the road to making a major impact.
Austin held on for the 27-22 victory.
“They’re our rival because they give us the most run for our money,” Bray said of Houston. “We love that, and we need that competition. It’s really important for the development of our region, but also for our team specifically.”
The pair move onto the DI Red River conference final four, which has just been moved from Houston to Austin, on May 7-8. While the teams aren’t looking past their semifinal opponents – especially Little Rock, which pushed HARC during the regular season – they are hoping for a rematch in the title game.
“We’re not overlooking anyone,” Bray prefaced, “but I would be disappointed if these two teams didn’t meet in the final.
“My impression is that we haven’t seen the best they’ve got,” the president said. “They’re doing the same thing we are. We had our learning moments, we know what we need to fix, and now we have two weeks to do it. They’re going to bring something different, as are we. But we’re not preparing just to beat them – we want play better against any competition.”
Depth and recovery will be major factors in the day-two Red River final. Austin has placed 48 different players in Valkyries jerseys during league matches, and 31 are eligible for USA Rugby playoffs. Bray is confident in the skill across that depth.
“When we’re traveling for playoffs, we’ll have to make cuts,” Bray said. “That’s a rare, but great position to be in. It’s a luxury that we’re not used to. The depth is looking solid, and I’m glad I’m not the one making those cuts.”
Austin and Houston get a break the next two weekends before potentially seeing each other in the conference final. The victor moves onto the national DI playoffs, while the runner-up moves onto the DII playoffs.