Photo: Travis Prior for USA Rugby
After the Women’s Premier League formed, only one team has won more than one DI club championship– that is, until Seattle defeated Chicago North Shore last weekend for its second title. The Saracens join the San Diego Surfers as the only two clubs to win back-to-back titles since 2009, and their fantastic set-up will keep producing championship-caliber squads and players for years to come.
“We had a very difficult time deciding our 23 players,” Seattle coach Tim Zern contrasted the previous two seasons. “It was a good problem to have. It’s a sign that our club is getting better and better, and that the standard of play and expectations have risen substantially. That said, players were left off the roster, and it was difficult. That’s a new experience for us.”
The coaching staff selected a roster that would best execute the Chicago North Shore-tailored game plan. The most crucial addition was Carly MacKinnon. The top-choice kicker hadn’t fully rehabbed for the Round of 8 weekend, and her absence was felt on the scoreboard. The wing was, however, ready for Glendale, Colo., and she reiterated her value as she accounted for the first nine points of the game.
“Knowing that we had a such an accurate kicker, our strategy was to take advantage and grab some easy points. It did set the tone,” Zern said. “We had those penalties because of consistent pressure attacking North Shore. We wanted to start the game on the front foot and have them chase us a bit. To their credit, they played good defense to keep us out of the try zone for a long time.”
North Shore actually scored the first try of the game, sending power prop Kadie Sanford across for the first of her two scores.
“She was very impressive,” Zern said of Sanford. “She just had legs like tree trunks and was hard to put down. Their whole forward pack was big and pretty mobile.
“Their No. 8 [Christiane Pheil] was really dynamic off the back of the scrum and dominated lineouts,” the coach added. “And I was really impressed with their pace outside. I was not expecting them to close on us on the outside channels so effectively.”
The 9-7 scoreline was the closest that North Shore got to Seattle, which answered with two corner tries before the half – one that took advantage of a yellow-card advantage (Rose Baker try) and another through captain Kristine Sommer (inset) after a nice out-the-back pass from Ashley Kmiecik, 19-7. Kelsi Stockert pushed the lead out to 26-7, scooping up a bobbled offload and returning for the score.
“I was really pleased with our continuity on attack for the first 40 minutes. We kept putting them under pressure and moved them around a ton,” Zern said. “We got fatigued in the second half. Looking at their body language, I was concerned. We were able to call upon our depth with Emily Vyhnanek and bringing in Zahra Young to loose forward – that made a big impact. Lauren Barber came on at center and that freed up captain Kristine Sommer to play loose forward, where she’s more comfortable.”
North Shore surged into the fourth quarter, putting Sanford and Kelsey Reed across for tries, and drawing to with one score of Seattle, 26-19. In the final 10 minutes, Vyhnanek was particularly effective as she made some fantastic goal-line tackles to stop Sanford from dotting down a third try. She was instrumental in relieving some pressure, as North Shore threatened to further close the gap. The Chicago side was attacking around mid-field and Vyhnanek poached the ball. It recycled quickly and three passes later, Kmiecik hit Stockert, who sprinted 40 meters to beneath the posts. MacKinnon’s conversion made it 33-19 and the wing added a penalty to close at 36-19.
“I went out of my way to compliment Emily for her timeliness, but she’s been doing it all season for us. She’s a dynamo on defense,” Zern said.
Several players caught Women’s National Team coach Pete Steinberg’s attention. No. 8 Chelsey Sveinsson has attended NASC before, and her MVP performance confirmed her on-the-radar status. Flyhalf Kati Lee was also of interest.
“She’s relatively new to flyhalf – been at the position for less than two years – but with the volume of games we play, her minutes are incredibly high at that position, and we play against very good competition,” Zern said. “Her distribution on attack was spot-on. Our 9-10 is our engine and always has been. They did so well.”
The whole team did well considering the hype heading into the final.
“There was a lot of expectation and nervousness and anxiety. It was a long week,” Zern said. “We flew in Thursday, had all day Friday and the majority of the day Saturday. We had every minute scheduled, but it’s tough waiting. We did a good job of being in the moment, putting aside distractions, focusing on the task ahead of us and backing ourselves. I was really pleased.”
Despite the back-to-back DI titles, it’s unlikely you’ll see Seattle in the WPL anytime soon. The Saracens are too well set up in the BC Premiership, where they can play more and better games close to home.
“I wish other teams in the U.S. could have the opportunities we have in a unique international club system,” Zern said. “We play against clubs that are 150 years old and have had facilities in downtown Victoria and Vancouver since the mid-1800s. It’s tough to compete with that.”
And plus, Seattle still has ground to conquer in Canada. Looking ahead, the coaching staff will identify and train talent for those key decision-making positions that are being vacated by retiring veterans. Zern is proactive about restocking the roster and has contacted several players from Stanford, UC Davis, Chico State and Penn State to consider relocating to Seattle.
“Pete [Steinberg] and national team players get it – they see the quality of athlete that we can help develop because of the quantity of games and coaching staff,” Zern said. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be lucky enough to have more players come to us, but if we don’t, we’ll be fine.”