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Tough, Fit Zons Win NorCal

  • 14 Apr 2019

All photos: Jackie Finlan / TRB

Sacramento looked tough and fast at the Northern California DII Club Championship, as the Amazons defended their title with an 83-10 win over Berkeley. The team now advances to the Pacific North championship against Emerald City, the Pacific Northwest champion. The May 4 fixture in Boise, Idaho, will determine the Competitive Region’s representative to nationals.

The Amazons entered the final with an undefeated record and were the heavy favorites; however, the All Blues had posted a competitive 44-38 loss to Sacramento early in the season. But Sacramento gained control of the match early on, sending its brutally powerful ballcarriers up the middle and committing the defense with little offloads in contact. The team got over its own ball well, the phases came quickly, and when worked away from the congestion, the ball moved through a looping, inserting back line, all running at pace. Defensively, the Amazons were on the front foot and forced handling errors, intercepted passes and turned over breakdowns.

“We’re trying to go from sideline to sideline and see where we can find the gaps,” said Sacramento captain and outside center Ofolangi Mailangi. “But you have to get the team to run the plays and trust that [the plays] will do what coach tells us they’ll do. And they do. Every time you want to do it yourself, just let that ball go and let the ball do the work – that’s the big transition that we’ve had. We trust our teammates now. We trust the person to the left, to the right, and not just yourself.”

The offense is managed by halfbacks Diana Nguyen and Margaret Scott, and they keep everyone moving around the park and in concert.

“So fitness – one thing we always battle with as Amazons, because we’re pretty thick – we’ve stepped it up this year,” Mailangi said. “This year we started conditioning in the summer, which sucks. But it’s great. And then we went into straight 7s to get our back line working with each other. … We can always get better with fitness, but it clears your mind. You’re not thinking about being tired anymore; you’re thinking about the next play or where you can go ruck.”

Sacramento scored 40 points in the first half, and Lindenwood University graduate Ariana Lewis accounted for the first try. The flanker tore away for what looked like another try, but Berkeley fullback Briana Riley – who put in an excellent day’s work on defense – snuffed out the opportunity. Prop Angela-Jane Tepa made good on the territory however with the first of two bulldozing tries. Inside center Lindsay Palepale kicked the first of six conversions on the day.

Mailangi broke through the line and the ball moved to wing Lexia Reynolds for a score, and then the outside center added an intercept try from her own end.

Berkeley attempted to get out of its own with a clearance kick, but it was well fielded by scrumhalf Kristin Shum, and further advanced through Tepa. Palepale then broke free for about 35 meters for the try. The duo were instrumental in the final score of the half, as a Shum line-break made it just short of the tryline, and Tepa scored after a couple of turnovers.

Two Mailangi line-breaks set up scores from Lewis and Palepale, and Shum dotted down after a weakside movement from a scrum. Berkeley put down two tries in approximately eight minutes – one from outside center Christina Ramos on a long break, and a second from flanker Jazmyne Spears diving over. In between those two tries was perhaps the prettiest backline movement of the day, as Sacramento reset with a scrum near Berkeley’s 22 meter. Flyhalf Scott took the pass off Palepale’s hip, Shum inserted and then looped to the end of the line, and with great pace dotted down in the corner for a width-of-the-pitch score.

Haley French brought a nice burst of energy onto the pitch and scored with 10 minutes to go, and then wing Rachel Gonzales, who finished the day at scrumhalf, made good on a Sacramento turnover in the ruck for the centered try and conversion. The day ended with another good backline move off the scrum for Kiana Saffings to dot down.

“Our whole goal was to peak during playoffs, so as we move into regionals and hopefully the ‘ship, we’re at our best,” Mailangi approved of the performance. “Our team has really come together. The girls recognize our strengths, our weaknesses – we still have things we want to work on, cleaning up what we call ‘unluckys’ – but we’ll just get back to work and refocus. But our team has done such a great job peaking, because that’s what we told each other: We have to get better, with everything. And that’s what we’ve been doing, and I’m so proud of them for that.”

Sacramento is fitter, more trusting, and also has the guidance of New Zealand 7s alum Orene Ai’i on the coaching staff. The 2005 World Rugby 7s Player of the Year volunteered his help last year.

“I guess we’re like fungus; he stuck to us,” Mailangi laughed. “So this year we really wanted to play and let him know that we’re serious as well. We’re playing for free here, so it’s a different type of ‘Why are you playing’ and so it’s for the love of rugby and we want to show that to him. I mean, he’s an All Black player for crying out loud. How do you try to impress an All Black player?

“Whatever he tells us to do we try to keep it in our thoughts while we’re out there and execute it,” the captain continued. “Because it is pretty at the end of the day when you let the ball go and trust your teammates and your coach and the plays. You gotta drink the Kool-Aid and that’s what we did.”

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