Two important factors influencing post-season success are player availability/depth and travel funds. In women’s division one, every team takes at least one flight during the regular season or hits the road for a doubleheader. And if you’re particularly successful and advance to the final, an individual could purchase up to five flights during the fall.
Those time and financial demands inevitably affect depth, and some clubs handle the recruitment/retention challenge better than others. Atlanta is one of those clubs. They lure players from surrounding states – sometimes requiring flights to training – and field a DII side. They’ve also maximized their chances for a final’s berth by hosting the Elite 8, thereby sidestepping those travel woes and playing in an environment with which they’re very familiar.
That wasn’t the case last year. Losing flyhalf Heather Hale early in the playoffs hurt the team, and they bowed out during the semifinals to eventual finalist Glendale. It was an important lesson, and the Harlequins have focused on depth this year, as evidenced by their 63-5 win over the Village Lions last Saturday.
“We’ve already exceeded expectations,” Atlanta coach Jason Payne said. “We have loads of depth coming through, and quite a few new players started today. We made four changes in the pack, so I was happy with game time. I was happy with the first-half effort, although there were some errors and we weren’t as consistent in the breakdown. Our reactions on defense and in the lineout need work, but overall, we’re progressing as a squad.”
Atlanta’s true test occurred the weekend prior when the Harlequins traveled to NOVA for the teams’ fifth game of the season. Until the final 10 minutes, Atlanta held onto a 6-5 lead before two late tries produced the 20-5 win.
“That was a tough game,” Payne reflected. “Both teams played well but we emptied our bench in the second half and those subs made a real impact. We put pressure on them late and that made the difference.”
Atlanta has also seen the return of some key injured players, like fullback Jess Wooden and scrumhalf Crystal Phillips. Wooden is in the Eagle 15s pool and has been perpetually injured. Now at full speed, she ran in three tries during the first half, then moved to flyhalf in the second stanza. She’s actually the third-string flyhalf but filling in for the injured Kate Daniels.
As for Phillips, her presence has been missed at halfback. She rejoined Atlanta after ACL rehab and takes weekly flights from Ft. Lauderdale to be play with her team.
These additions bolster a solid core of veterans, like Liz Snodgrass, who ran in a hat trick. Snodgrass often teams up with fellow flanker Tia Blosser – who is having a smashing season – but she was resting last weekend. Replacement hooker Laketa Sutton, who flanked for DII champion Raleigh Venom last year, dotted down twice, while wing Emily Smith and lock Wanita McCoy added five-pointers. Snodgrass, Wooden and Heather Hale handled the kicking duties.
Atlanta has two weeks of prep before seeing CR2 #3 Chicago in the quarterfinals, and Payne will spend that time on defensive assignments, the tackle contest, set piece details and depth in the line.
“I’m feeling good,” Payne looked ahead. “We got knocked out last year, so it’s in our heads a bit. We just have to get focused on Chicago and take one game at a time.”
And the Harlequins should feel good. They’ve got their personnel sorted, and they’re taking on the post-season on their home field. It doesn’t get more favorable than that.