(Photo: Rebecca Brafman rallies New York from the front. JD Black photo)
Easily the biggest upset of the Women’s Premier League occurred on Sunday, when New York defeated Berkeley 25-5 for their first win of the season. The reigning WPL champions were the clear favorites, but New York did not succumb to that intimidation.
“I didn’t look at it as an underdog win,” New York coach Heidi Rubenstein said. “Every season is a new one, and you never know what you’re going to get. Players come and go, and move around a lot in this league. I was not surprised that we won; I was more surprised that we lost against Glendale [the week before]. It doesn’t matter who’s wearing our orange-and-blue; I have high expectations as to how we should be playing and what we’re capable of.”
Rubenstein’s expectations went unfulfilled during the opening weekend of the WPL, when New York dropped a 29-22 decision to Glendale on the road.
“The Glendale loss was really frustrating because we felt we didn’t have our best game, and it was close,” Rubenstein said. “We were knocking on the door a bunch of times and should have taken advantage, but we didn’t. They scored due to some bad decision-making on our part and a lack of communication that produced holes in our defense. But it was the first game of the season, and sometimes you need that – a loss to shake things up.”
New York returned to the training pitch and placed even more emphasis on their defensive cohesion, especially in the backs. As the team prepared to host the reigning national champs, they were fully aware of the wide-open style that Berkeley prefers and dangerous speed in their back three. Led by new flyhalf Mary McCarthy, the front three pushed hard, and when linebreaks did occur, wing Nicole Humphrey and fullback Kath Ryan prevented any further yardage.
Berkeley did start strongly, getting on the board with a Sarah Davis try (5-0). But then the All Blues fell victim to penalties and struggled with offsides and not-rolling-away at the breakdown. McCarthy’s expert boot came in handy, and two penalties later, New York had the 6-5 lead into the break.
“We were dominating for the most part and playing on their side of the field,” Rubenstein said. “There wasn’t a time when I was concerned [that Berkeley might turn the tide], but when you’re only up one point at halftime, it’s anybody’s game.”
New York found some more success in the second half and got their first try from prop Rebecca Brafman. Yes, prop. The former inside center and backs captain made the switch this season, and accounted for New York’s only big run off a weakside break.
“The backs are used to having Brafman’s voice out there, as she was the main decision-maker as backs captain,” Rubenstein spoke to the Eagle’s position swap. “So, yes, it’s tough for the backs not working with what they’re used to. But now we have Kaitlin Ruggiero – who had been playing flyhalf but is now more consistently at inside center – as the backs captain and she’s a great leader. Mary [McCarthy] takes good control at flyhalf and I’m confident they can work it out.”
The offensive support continued to improve and aided Humphrey and Rosie Meisner in dotting down two more tries and the convincing win.
“We were missing some key players but I can't blame the loss on that,” Berkeley coach Kathy Flores said. “New York had us in the set pieces, which kept us on the back foot and having to play catch up most of the game. Though we had worked on our defensive alignment during the week, we only got part of it right. We were up fairly well but did a poor job of deciding whether to contest the ruck or not, which led to New York overloading us defensively.
“We still need to work on hearing the referee and lowering our penalty count,” Flores added. “But mostly on our end, it was too little aggressive attacking on either offense or defense.”
The win is an incredible boost for New York – the same way it was for San Diego when they lost to the All Blues by three points last week. There had been some concerns as to the quality of depth on the New York bench, but Rubenstein set the record straight.
“Our numbers are low; instead of carrying 40-45 players at practice, we have 30," Rubenstein said. “But we have depth. In Glendale, for instance, we had Erica Granger and Yoshi Shapiro at scrumhalf and flyhalf – and it’s not to say that they won’t be there again, although I prefer Erica out in the backline. It’s a good problem to have, and week to week, no one has a permanent place in the lineup.”
One of the more interesting evolutions that New York is enjoying is the new halfback pairing of recent grads Blair Station (Brown) and McCarthy (Michigan). Rubenstein was particularly impressed with the young players’ poise in such crucial positions, and the coach expects their careers to flourish.
“We can only get better from here,” Rubenstein said. “But every other team is in the same boat – getting better every game. The challenge boils down to who’s going to step up more and bring it on the day.”
The win pushes New York into second place in the Red Conference. Although Berkeley and New York are both 1-1, New York earned two bonus points last weekend for four-plus tries and a loss by seven points or fewer.