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Tempe & the Invigorating Impact of a Tie

Tempe Women’s Rugby went 0-3 against San Diego last spring, losing by a combined 174-22 as the Surfers built to the 2023 USA Club Rugby Division I National Championship. The Ninjas looked inward, identified some areas of needed improvement, and made adjustments. Last Saturday, Tempe hosted San Diego in the teams’ second regular-season match against each other and banked a 14-14 tie. Gains made.

RELATED: Feb. 16-18 Rugby Games & Scores

Whitney Swain is the Tempe treasurer and forwards captain, and has been with the Ninjas since graduating from Arizona State University rugby in 2015. That’s a decade’s worth of perspective and an understanding of what works well for Tempe.

“We had a lot of players leave last year, and we were actually worried how we were going to hit 23 CIPPed players,” Swain said of big changes from 2023. “We put a lot of focus into growing the game and growing the club, and we’ve had a huge increase in new players this year. We have 45 players CIPPed, and 26 of those did not play with us last year.”

There are rugby rookies but also collegiate standouts like scrumhalf Raquel Macias (Fresno State, ASU), No. 8 Maddi Strubhar (Utah State) and prop Kat Lanzante (Grand Canyon Univ.) who inject good experience. They have been immediately impactful on the pitch and in training up the newcomers.

“And we have two new coaches this year,” Swain lauded head coach Ayron Schramm and assistant coach Jack Mills, who join Rookie Coach Nic Steinbach. “We launched a search over the summer looking for people who had more time and dedication to put in. We got two really great pickups for coaches.”

The coaches and leadership group – which includes Swain and Lindsey Mahoney, Isabella Macca and Alex Jaros in the backs – were to put to the task of developing and engaging a large roster with different needs, all while building toward the 2024 season.

“It’s a growing year for Tempe,” Swain said. “We’ve focused on the growth of our whole 23, and then some, this year. If you look at the lineups from the last five games, we have not had a similar 1-23 the entire season. And we’re really putting a lot of time into our B side matches.”

Feedback began in mid-January when Tempe traveled to San Diego for the teams’ DI SoCal/Southwest season opener.

“That game was actually exciting because it was 5-0 at half,” Swain said of the 29-0 loss. “We broke down a little in the second half but we knew we could compete with them. We still thought of that as a year-over-year win. We halved the score. We’re on our way.”

The team kept working and adjusting and getting the depth quality rotations. Tempe finished the first half of the season 3-1, beating Belmont Shore 24-19, Santa Monica 22-19 and Pasadena 94-5. The DI SoCal/Southwest runs a home-and-away season, and the lineup restarted with San Diego traveling to Arizona last Saturday. The Surfers were 4-0.

“We’ve been drilling hard on slide defense since October. When you lose by 65 points [in 2023], that’s obviously what you’ve got to work on,” Swain said of Saturday as an important checkpoint. “San Diego is a really great team that knows how to move the ball and has some really fast, talented backs.”

And San Diego scored through its backs, sending wing Ashley Torrecillas and center Maddie Arenchild into the try zone. Flanker Kaylee Westmoreland converted both for 14 first-half points – which Tempe matched. Forwards Swain and Strubhar scored the Ninjas’ tries while fullback Jaros hit the extras.

The second half was a defensive battle and Tempe stood up.

“When you’re focusing on the slide defense, 1-15 have to communicate and make sure you’re pulling people and wrapping people around the ruck,” Swain said. “Our back line has grown tremendously, and our wings have been able to hit those tackles and stop them on the edge. Two wings who played particularly well last weekend – Shay [Mangisi] and Taylor Didesch – really had amazing tackling games and were tracking people down, not letting anybody past.

“It was so close. And you knew every tackle mattered, every step mattered, and that people were really putting their whole heart and soul into it, down to the last second,” the hooker said of the intensity. “Because you can’t let one missed tackle create a score. Everyone had to focus the entire time.”

Swain explained that Tempe had a couple of opportunities to take the lead – a held-up try in the first half, a long-range penalty kick that didn’t have the legs second half. And even though the execution fell short, it was invigorating to produce those moments.

“So not only did we feel we were staying with them, but it didn’t feel like we were trailing them and playing catch-up,” Swain said. “It felt like we were really competitive the entire game.”

The forwards captain noted that the lineouts need improvement and the full-team flow is still coming together, but overall, Tempe put in a good performance.

“It was a tie, but it felt like a win,” Swain said. “Morale was already good going into [the game], now we’ve doubled down on the confidence that we do have the potential and personnel to compete at this level. … We actually have the ability to compete with the national champions. It’s going to light a fire for the rest of the season.”

At present, the SoCal/Southwest competition is advertising an April 13 playoff (presumably semifinals) and April 20 championship. If that setup is accurate (versus a finals-only post-season), then San Diego, Tempe, Belmont Shore and Santa Monica are highly favored to be the semifinalists.

SoCal has not announced a location for its April 20 club championships, but the victors will then advance to the Pacific Super Regional on May 3-5 in Las Vegas. If the setup replicates the 2023 playoffs, then the SoCal/Southwest champion will play the Pacific Northwest champion (Seattle or ORSU) in Vegas, and the victor will head to the national semifinals/final on May 17-19 in Austin, Texas.

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