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Underdog Stanford Stoked for Regionals

  • 01 Apr 2019

Stanford University hosted the Pacific Mountain Rugby Conference (PMRC) playoffs last weekend and gave the hometown crowd a reason to cheer. The Cardinal finished second to Chico State and booked its spot in the quarterfinal round of the USA Rugby DI College Spring Championship. The two teams will head to Irvine, Calif., on April 19-20, and join BYU and the Pacific South champion (determined April 7).

Stanford entered the conference tournament as the fourth seed, having gone 0-4 against (1) UC Davis and (2) Chico State in league play, and Oregon State (3) representing the North. That pit Stanford and Davis against each other in the Saturday semifinals.

“We were really focusing on the little things, doing the simple things well,” Stanford prop Jett Hayward said. “So being quick in the clear-out was a big focus for us, because we lost a lot of ball to them previously, and staying connected on defense. So just trying to do the basics and then hoping we could put together some tries through that.”

The teams went 12-12 into the break. Minutes into the second half, Stanford fullback Nicole Edsall went on a long tear and the incomparable Prai Harris tracked her down at the two meter. Anna Park was on the fullback’s heels and attempted to dive over the line but was held up. From the subsequent scrum, the ball moved to Hayward, who is too tough to stop within five meters of the try line. The score restored a lead that Stanford wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the match.

“I think we could feel that – like the backs were working with the forwards and trying new things,” Hayward said of the team growing in confidence late in the match. “I want to give a lot of credit to our 10 [Dakota Bailey-Van Kuren], who really stepped up and made some great calls. We just had a lot of energy. We kept building and they got tired, and we were feeling really great and kept going.”

Stanford put down two tries – one from Seneca Friend, the last a penalty try awarded after a high tackle on Ashdeep Seth – in the final seven minutes for the 36-17 win.

“It was amazing. We’ve been working toward it so hard,” Hayward said. “We knew we had to step up our game because we lost to them two times this season. But we felt so close both times, so it was really amazing for the team to come together and take that win.”

Meanwhile, Chico State defeated Oregon State 31-19, meaning both the Wildcats and Cardinal guaranteed their berths to the regional playoffs.

That security did not, however, translate into a drop in intensity during Sunday’s final. Chico State did rest Hannah Westfall, who was nursing a shoulder injury, but brought on Jen Brissenden, who made a big impact at flanker.

“We knew [Sunday] was going to be a tough game,” Hayward said. “We were pumped coming into this because we knew we were underdogs this whole weekend. We had really nothing to lose.

“[We prepared for] Chico kind of similarly [to Davis]. We knew they were really good at poaching so we were trying to be quick in the clear-outs for that as well,” the senior continued. “One thing we’re still looking to focus on is launching on defense. They have some really strong runners and I think we struggled with that a little bit today.”

The teams traded tries during the first 15 minutes, with Chico State No. 8 Becky Leudke scoring the first of four times, and Brissenden dotting down a driving lineout. Outside center Kennedy Kidd split Chico’s tries, and then Stanford’s ground game started to pay off. A not-releasing penalty allowed freshman scrumhalf Leilani Mendoza – a great director – to go quickly and connect with No. 8 Park, who drew the defense and then hit Seth for a long break. The wing was halted inside the 10 meter, but Hayward was there in support for the pick-up and score.

“We’ve been practicing that [poaching] a lot pretty recently and do it quickly,” Hayward said. “If you can do a double tackle and have someone there ready, if [the attack] isn’t there quick enough, we can poach or at least get a call if they’re trying to hold on. We’ve been working on that so I’m really proud that we did great with that this whole weekend.”

Everyone had a possession-stealing mentality, and flanker Alyssa Lee had one truly memorable strip along the sideline [above photo]. Another not-releasing penalty allowed Mendoza to quick-tap and put Edsall into a retreating defense for the weaving score. Minutes later, Chico State sent a booming penalty kick that was intended for touch, but it tracked in-bounds and Stanford knocked on on the try line. The five-meter scrum turned into an eight-pick to the weakside: 17-17 into the break.

Chico State built from a scrum in Stanford’s end, eventually switching fields to take advantage of a slowly adjusting defense and gaining ground out wide. Luedke then straightened up the attack for another try. More good connections between Luedke, outside center Ashley Evans and wing Alyssa Pena put Chico in scoring position, and lock Vanessa Somoza’s quick support put another try on the board, 27-17.

In the fourth quarter, Stanford walked a five-meter scrum over the line (27-22) before Chico answered with two tries in five minutes.

“We lost some momentum when they got a big break through their No. 8 and scored a big try. That got in our heads a little bit because we were already lagging, pretty tired,” Hayward reflected on the final 15 minutes of the game. “I think we picked it back up in the final seven minutes though, tried to pull it together. Really it comes down to defense. We need to keep launching and sticking together.”

Chico State won 41-22 and takes the top seed out of the conference to regionals. The Wildcats will face the Pacific South champion, while Stanford will see BYU on April 19. The two winners will play for a berth to the spring final in Matthews, N.C., on May 4.

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