Sacramento won the DII Club Western Regional Championship and advances to the national title match in Obetz, Ohio. The Pacific North champions defeated Pacific South’s Las Vegas and Frontier’s St. Louis last weekend and will face Eastern Regional Champion Harrisburg at nationals.
Sacramento traveled to Austin, Texas, with most of its regular starting team but had great faith in the depth it had developed this year. The squad ranges from 18-year-old Lexia Reynolds to mothers with multiple children. First up, Las Vegas in the Western regional semifinals, aka, national quarterfinals.
“We played Las Vegas five years ago – I can’t believe I’m still playing rugby – and we barely won to go onto nationals. They are a whole new team, obviously, but so are we,” Sacramento captain and inside center Ofa Mailangi said. “This time, fitness played a great role.”
Sacramento led 17-5 after 40 minutes and then pulled away in the second half for an 80-12 victory. Mailangi, Reynolds, Lindsay Palepale, Haley French, Kristin Shum and Ariana Lewis were among the try-scorers, and Palepale kicked the conversions.
“The way we used to play, we’d use our strength and power, but we were never fully fit. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still hard, but having the majority of us in that fitness level and being able to support – you run 10 meters, then you run 10 meters – it’s super easy, and it’s how we were able to pull away as far as we did.”
Mailangi pointed to flyhalf Sarona Scott for amplifying the team’s fitness.
“She leads conditioning and is the one who got us fit. We may hate it, but it shows on the field that we’re a different team,” the center said. “Sarona is our 10 and it’s awesome to play alongside her. She’s the voice behind every play, gives clear direction and knows the game plan by heart. She’s a true 10.”
Sacramento banked more confidence in the win and made good progress toward that peaking performance. The next step was St. Louis, which had eliminated Austin 41-12 on Saturday and also the Amazons in the 2018 national quarterfinals. Sacramento looked forward to a chance at redemption and spent Saturday night focused on recovery and embracing the right mindset.
“It’s hard to play in Texas. There’s a lot of humidity and it’s just freaking hot out there,” Mailangi said. “Coach let us know that we had to stay in the right mental state, stay within that competitive level and push through whatever obstacles await. Last year [in Fort Worth, Texas], weather was an obstacle, too.”
Sacramento took a 17-0 lead after 14 minutes, and then St. Louis sent flanker Anna Savage across for a try and Sloane Hecimovich converted.
“No matter the score, we still feel we have to try harder,” Mailangi recalled the turning point. “There’s never a time when we’re comfortable with the lead. Every time they scored against us, we told ourselves: That needs to be the last try.”
The team rallied and found inspirational performances all over the pitch.
“Roxanne stepped up and did everything right. She just rocked it,” Mailangi said. “I love when I see certain players start to peak and Roxanne stood out for me.
“Fehi Saafi, our #7, has time and time again shown her skill set and power,” the captain continued. “She is relentless and is leading our pack with her strength and tenaciousness on offense and defense. She is an awesome player. … Our wings [Reynolds, Rachel Gonzales] and fullback [Shum] also had exceptionally great games this weekend. … Heather [Snyder] in our pack is just amazing and did such a great job.”
The Amazons piled on for a 43-14 first-half lead and then added three more converted tries for the 64-24 win.
“I think they were a better team this year [compared to 2018]. They had a couple of great runners – their 13 [Dominesha Newton] and 12 [Anna Albrecht] – but so do we,” Mailangi said.
“Our team was just so confident. Our coaches put game plans together to help us move forward and have confidence in us to run them,” the captain praised coaches Orene Ai’I, Niko Lolohea, Momoa Palepale and trainer Peter A. Ibarra. “There were no doubts in our minds what we wanted to do, and we trusted each other to get it done.”
With the final whistle, the team turned its attention to Harrisburg, which defeated Providence and Atlanta en route to the Eastern Regional Championship. But the Amazons also see more opportunity than a national trophy at stake.
On the younger end of the roster, there are a handful of former UC Davis players eager to head to nationals. In spring 2016, USA Rugby did not hold a DI college national championship and Aggies like Lembke, Diana Nguyen and Carolina Sequeira had to settle for a DI spring title instead. Now the trio is eagerly awaiting a true shot at a national title.
On the older end of the spectrum, several moms are hoping to hoist a trophy with their children in Obetz, Ohio, next month.
“One team saw Sarona’s daughter with us in Texas and asked whether we had a mom on the team. ‘No, we have nine,’” Mailangi laughed. “It’s funny. All the moms were talking after the game and one by one started suggesting that we bring our kids to Ohio. All of us started tearing up because this is a big moment for us, and we wouldn’t want anyone else to celebrate with. It’s the best feeling – showing your kids how strong their moms are and just being a positive role model for them is every mom’s goal.”
And children on the sideline lend extra motivation to player-moms.
“I can’t tell you how many times I think of my own son when I’m out there,” Mailangi added. “There’s no way I’m going home and telling this kid that I lost this game. We usually have the kids at the games and to have them watch us play lifts our spirits. It makes us run harder and play harder. And we’ve been blessed with a support system that allows us parents to keep playing. It’s a lot of sacrifice, for us and them, and hopefully we can celebrate together.”