The Berkeley All Blues are the first Women's Club 7s champions, beating the Boston Belles 36-0 in the final. The one-sided affair capped off a dominating day of play, one that began with wins over Glendale in the quarterfinals and DC Furies in the semis.
Berkeley exited day one as the second seed in pool A, having beat Belmont Shore and Philadelphia, and tied Boston Belles and NOVA. "Our games against the Belles and NOVA were our hardest of the weekend," said former Belles coach Brandon Sparks, who now shares Berkeley 7s coaching duties with former Eagle Laura Cabrera. "We were leading by two tries and the Belles evened it up in the last minute. Against NOVA, we had to play from behind - something we hadn't done most of the summer, so we learned a lot from those two matches."
Pool play was a learning experience for Berkeley. Coaches experimented with player combinations, while athletes banked some important lessons that would aid their run to the title the following day. During the film and skills sessions, the coaches sat back as the players internalized those lessons and began coaching themselves.
"They started identifying what mistakes they made themselves," Sparks said of the film session. "That's when you know they've hit the next level - identifying mistakes in the system without us pointing it out to them. A lot of credit has to go to the players for the adjustments that were made for Sunday."
The transition realized itself on the field today, and the All Blues got a second shot at rectifying one of its ties from pool play. One-sided affairs saw them line up against Sparks' former team, and as a coach, that was a difficult situation.
"The final was very hard," Sparks reflected. "I helped create the Belles last year with Kelly Seary, Katie Dowty and Emilie Bydwell. I had hand-picked many of the players last year, so it was like playing your child. You have to give it to Bydwell, Searly and Emily Malkin, who not only stepped up and led from the front, but also acted as coaches. Bydwell was especially phenomenal. She was playing with a broken hand and sacrificed everything."
The Belles had a difficult road to the final, having exited Saturday as the third seed in their pool. They knocked off last year's finalist, San Diego Surfers, before eliminating NOVA (while a man down) in the semis.
The All Blues were running at full throttle, defeating Glendale and the DC Furies to advance to the championship. Kelly Griffin and Nathalie Marchino were the go-to playmakers, who "attacked everything and went hard from the first whistle on Saturday to the last whistle on Sunday," according to Sparks, who also tipped his cap to role players Liz Terry and Phoebe Boone.
"I give special credit to Phoebe, who does all the those little things that the casual fan wouldn't notice, but that sway the game and control possession," Sparks said. "She was contesting rucks, poaching the ball, making the right call in the scrum. She has a very high workrate, does a lot of stuff off the ball like organizing defense and marking up. Her defense is solid and her attack is developing well. She scored two tries in the final."
Sparks also noted Irene Gardner's performance. "After this weekend, Irene definitely deserves a look from national coaches," Sparks said. "She was up against some tough opposition, but was side-stepping, running dynamic angles - all the things you look for."
Sparks has been fortunate working with the All Blues, which corales the region's best athletes and showcased a number of national team players. The coach synced well with Cabrera, a longtime All Blues player and coach, and her knowledge of the team's personnel complimented their leadership and has grown the team's summer 7s program. In the past, Berkeley has played 7s socially, but this summer saw upward of 30 women at every training and lured even more young talent to the team.
"Maricel Quirindongo-Crespo is one of several young, talented players from the [University of] California, which has really shown up in force," Sparks said. "We started her against DC because of her speed and attacking talent, but she hasn't really faced players of the caliber of Ida Bernstein. Previous to the match, Nathalie [Marchino] was talking about how wings don't stiffarm enough. And then Maricel laid this huge stiffarm against Ida in the middle of the field."
Sparks is confident that this experience will only enrich the All Blues' 7s program, especially since East Coast college players interning in the area are gravitating toward the club for 7s instruction. And now that women's club 7s has an official event to rally around, the standard of play can only improve.
"This year's event was well respected, and USA Rugby did a lot to develop women's 7s," Sparks said. "More could have been done, but this was the first event, so you can't criticize too harshly about the mistakes that were made [on the organizational side]. All of the teams came well prepared, and there was some first-class, champagne rugby displayed from everyone - even from the last-place team."