A big game is poised to go down between Bishop O’Dowd (1-0) and Mother Lode (2-0), as two of Northern California’s strongest girls’ high schools look to establish themselves early in the season.
“It’s become a big rivalry because we’ve been competitive lately, but we’ve never beat them in the four times we’ve played them,” Bishop O’Dowd rugby director Ray Lehner said. “Last year the Nor Cal championship was a big one. We came out behind in the score, but we had a good opportunity to beat Mother Lode. The teams are well matched this year. We tied each other at the Kickoff Tournament [in January] in what, honestly, was not a great game.
“They always seem to have really sturdy, hard-running girls,” Lehner critiqued Mother Lode’s strengths. “At the KOT, their center really impressed me. She was tough, ran hard, and our girls didn’t do a great job stopping her. She piqued my concern because we’ll have to deal with her moving forward.”
Bishop O’Dowd kicked off training on January 5 with a mini-camp, where girls’ coaches Julia Diskin and Mike Furlong ran the show. Lehner works with both the girls and boys teams.
“I oversee the program and try not to micromanage,” Lehner explained. “Julia and Mike to a good job. They coach a different style than I would, but I like their results. They’ve spent more time and effort on skill development, whereas I’m more into the team understanding how we want to play. That’s been different for me, but as I said, I like the results.”
Diskin and Furlong have promoted a game style that lets their exceptional backs, and team strength, take center stage. The halfback combination of Gretchen Shaw and Nicole Ratto is particularly crucial.
“They’re very sound, complete rugby players and understand space and depth,” Lehner said. “It’s nice for us, as those are hard positions to coach if you don’t have the right players.”
Standout fullback Olivia Bernadel Huey is also back for Bishop O’Dowd. “Year to year, she’s our best player,” Lehner commended. “She’s a really smart kid and could have a future in rugby.”
The forwards are led by veteran prop Rachel Keener, “a powerful runner who can break tackles,” Lehner said. “If you don’t get some leverage, she’s hard to stop. She’s been playing the house this year and scoring a lot of tries.”
Keener is a bright spot in an inexperienced pack, which have yet to prove themselves early in the season. They’ll get their shot against Mother Lode, which has posted two big wins against Rio Linda (58-0) and Lobo (53-27).
But Bishop O’Dowd has shown that they’re ready for the fight. In their first league match on Feb. 2, they just barely got past Dixon, a two-year-old club with an incredibly successful boys’ team, 20-17. It was one of those perpetually lead-changing games that tested the fortitude of the players.
“Dixon’s really good; they stomped us at the KOT,” Lehner recalled. “We ended up winning our league match with two minutes remaining, as center Meghan McQuaid scored three tries including the go-ahead. The game ended with us tackling their winger into touch, right in front of the try zone. We were really happy to beat them.”
Mother Lode, Dixon – they’re helping Bishop O’Dowd gauge their relative strength; however, it’s their April 20 game against the Sacramento Amazons, the league favorites, that will really lend perspective. Once the Nor Cal season ends, then Lehner and team will look at the national stage.
“We’ve been invited to the NIT, but it’s the same night as the senior prom, so I’ve left it up to the girls,” Lehner said. “The seniors want to go, so I’ve given them [NIT committee] a tentative yes. If it looks like we have a shot at the state championship in California, then I’ll pursue that trip [to the NIT harder].”
Stay tuned for the game results and coach feedback.