Austin is heading to the USA Rugby DI Club National Championship, a first for the 28-year-old club. The Valkyries won the Western Regional Championship, held in Austin, after defeating Houston Athletic (HARC) and Glendale on back-to-back days.
Heading into the weekend, Austin didn’t do any extra homework on its Saturday opponent, HARC. The Red River teams know each other well and had already contested three matches this season. Austin focused on getting into the right head space.
“There was definitely a weird energy on Saturday morning. We’re usually talkative when warming up and have music going, but I think we understood the gravity of this game,” Austin captain Brittany McGhee said. “We had to prove that the two losses [to HARC] earlier in the season weren’t a reflection of our skill, and we needed to make a statement.”
It was a tight first half, but Austin took a 15-5 halftime lead off tries from Sierra Jenkins (2) and Geri Thomas.
“But then our physical fitness and mental toughness we gained over the Gold Cup matches kicked in and we opened it up,” McGhee said. “That was amazing. Everyone started clicking.”
Austin continued to work the ball outside to the backs, who did a good job of finishing those opportunities in the try zone. Jenkins, Brenda Ramirez, Caitlin Reedy, Alex Freuh and Chelsea Arambula scored tries, while flyhalf Jordan Heller kicked the extras. Additionally, the defense performed really well, so much so that fullback Claire Tilton had a relatively “boring” day in the back field. Austin won 46-10.
“We were hearing talk on the sidelines that the Valkyries weren’t supposed to be here and didn’t deserve this,” McGhee commented on the Red River second seed to regionals. “That [result] shut them up because clearly we belong.”
Austin’s energy shifted. The first hurdle had been cleared and with it pressure relieved. The Valkyries turned attention to regionals newcomer Glendale, which had defeated Belmont Shore 38-14 on Saturday. The team watched film and got into prep mode for Sunday.
“We saw they had some speed in the backline and really good passing skills, and were organized in a way that HARC doesn’t necessarily achieve. So we needed a consistency of play for a full 80 minutes. There’d be no opportunity to take our foot off the gas,” McGhee said of film session takeaways. “We looked at their set plays – scrums, what the eightman does, tricky things in the lineout – and how we can prepare for that.
“We wanted to make sure everyone’s eyes and ears were open to what was happening on the field and not just focus on the Valkyries,” the prop continued. “If the flanker is in the back line during lineout, what does that mean and how do we respond? It was an opportunity to be more proactive instead of just reacting.”
It took a good 15 minutes for the scoreboard to tick over, and then the try trading began. Austin held a 14-12 lead as the half wore down but then Glendale made good use of a yellow card to score a third try for the 17-14 edge into the break.
During halftime, the Valkyries talked about discipline and keeping the energy up. Game day was in the mid-90s, and although Austin hadn’t played in those conditions yet this season, the team did know how to meet that heat. There were ice buckets with towels, trainers cooling down players, and orange slices for replenishment. Meanwhile, the team attempted to stay mentally focused as it fatigued.
Ten minutes after the break, Glendale scrumhalf Jess Dombrowski weaved through the defense for a try and 22-14 lead. Commensurate leader Heller closed the gap with a try (22-19) and continued to deploy a solid kicking game. Players like Chelsea Arambula was on the chase all day and was eventually rewarded with a try (24-22 to Austin). As the game wore down, a lovely grubber through the Glendale 22 set up Karla Navarrete for a second try on the day and 29-22 win.
“I think I just stopped walking; none of it was real. I was exhausted – I played that full 80 minutes and I was coming off injury the day before, tape on all of my joints,” McGhee recounted the final-whistle aftermath. “The entire game, we had a bunch of people on the sidelines. The Austin Blacks – we were at their field – our D2 team, alumni, the Huns. Everyone was cheering and erupting. There was champagne and people rushing the field – what is this? What is life?”
It wasn’t until Monday at 4 a.m. that the momentousness of it all landed with McGhee. Since then, focusing on everyday life has been difficult, but the final push is fewer than two weeks away. Austin is sending three teams to club nationals in Obetz, Ohio, and the Valkyries will face NOVA, the eastern regional champion.