The top three teams in the Cascade conference exchanged single-digit decisions throughout the season, and the championship was no different. Eastern Washington, in its first season in the conference, entered the final undefeated and served reigning champion Western Oregon its only loss in league play. Saturday’s game decided which team would represent the conference in the DII Round of 16.
“They had already defeated us at home, and we definitely didn’t want to underestimate them,” Western Oregon coach Mark Baldwin spoke to his team’s mindset. “We anticipated having a much stronger scrum, but they countered that very effectively. That was an early wake-up call that it was going to be a long, tough game.”
A try-trading affair unfolded. Eastern Washington exerted pressure early and took a 7-0 lead. Western Oregon answered appropriately, and minutes later, prop Hannah Cooper powered over the line and Emily Applegate added the first of her four conversions. The Banshees reestablished the point differential with another converted try, and minutes later, the Wolves saw freshman prop Leslie Carrasco make a bold run to the tryline only to be stopped just short. A couple of quick phases later, inside center Lauren Hecker made a nice move close to the try line for the score, all tied at 14.
“She’s really stepped up her game,” Baldwin praised the try-scorer. “She has evolved not only into a good athlete but also a good rugby player who makes good decisions.”
The next lead change belonged to Western Oregon. Scrumhalf Chianti Dixon scored a try, and Applegate put her side up 21-14. Those points ended up being the game-winner, but drama still loomed.
“In open play, our pack was stronger,” Baldwin compared the teams’ strengths. “Their scrum had improved quite a bit and stymied our attempts to use the set piece as a point of dominance. Emily Applegate was also yellow-carded. She’s our thrower and that affected our lineout play. Although Eastern Washington did a great job defending our lineout, and that took away a big part of our attack.
“In the backs, they probably had the edge is speed, but we had better structure,” the coach added. “We maintained good enough territory and possession, and pounded through the defense.”
Heather Bissonette was an excellent utility player, starting with the backs and then moving into the forwards when required. Baldwin engenders that type of flexibility in his players – teaching backs how to scrum, forwards how to run backs’ moves, and the like. He follows the “only as good as the weakest link” philosophy and invests a lot of time into developing his short bench.
The scoreline remained at 21-14 for some time, as the narrow football field hampered both sides’ offense. Eastern Washington continued to exert pressure and scooped up a loose ball from a Western Oregon scrum for an easy try between the posts. The Wolves charged down the conversion attempt, and it missed, 21-19 to Western Oregon.
With that little boost, Western Oregon’s Amanda Navolynski recovered the subsequent restart, and a couple of phases eventually saw freshman flyhalf Hannah Lange bust through Eastern Washington’s 30 meter and break four tackles en route to a centered try, 28-19.
“She did an outstanding job dealing with pressure and turning what should have been disasters into linebreaks,” the coach commended. “Her kicking was excellent, too.”
It was now a two-score game with little time left on the clock. Western Oregon hunkered down on defense and held onto the 28-19 win.
“It was a great game,” Baldwin said. “Eastern Washington has a great program and I have a lot of respect for their coach, Ian Martin. They’re going to be very good.”
Western Oregon returns to the national round of 16, and will likely play a West Coast or Gold Coast opponent in the first round (details have not been released by USA Rugby). The teams that go 2-0 that weekend will head to the spring championship final four. The spring champion will play the fall champion, Davenport, for the national championship on May 7.
“We’ve developed our game, started to put together some decent structure and defense,” Baldwin looked ahead to the post-season. “But we still need to work these next four weeks before we go down south – simply because we have 10 starting freshmen and they still make rookie mistakes sometimes. Due to hustle and good spirit, the team makes up for it, but we’ve got to eliminate those things before playoffs.”
Western Oregon will be buoyed by some fresh legs next term, which begins before playoffs, as returners from study abroad and injuries rejoin the team. Baldwin will test some lineup adjustments during an informal tournament, but the rest of the weekends are for recovery.
Stay tuned for more playoff information as it becomes available.