For many Berkeley players who competed in last year’s club 7s nationals, their last memory was an overtime loss to eventual champion San Diego in the semifinals. Defeats like that resonate, especially when considering the All Blues’ tradition of success. A dose of defeat can have its benefits, however, and Berkeley has used last year's disappointment as motivation for a successful summer.
Last weekend, the northern California team took two sides to the Dirty’s 7s in Palm Springs, as did the Surfers, and the familiar foes faced off in the final. Tied at 22 points apiece at the end of regulation, round two of the epic final four game unfurled.
“We’ve done a lot of hard work for that specific moment,” Berkeley 7s coach Laura Cabrera said. “We’ve been pushing them fitness wise, forcing them to make decisions when they’re fatigued. So when we were told we had to play sudden-death overtime, they were prepared and stood up to the challenge. We just went in [to the tournament] trying to see different player combinations, but to have them work together and support each other through overtime – I was impressed by their mental toughness, which struck me as an improvement from last year.”
Unlike last year, when San Diego’s Hannah Lopez took about 30 seconds to score the game-winner in the championship semifinals, Berkeley’s Jenn Sever was the first to score in overtime. Sure, the stakes were different, but it was an important win for Berkeley.
“They were very pleased,” Cabrera said of her team, especially the 2012 veterans. “Both of San Diego’s sides had tremendous athletes – lots of speed, size and good decision-making skills. They have a really good advantage being able to play against the residency girls in Chula Vista. San Diego picks up a lot of those girls, and more power to them. It’s great to have that competition around here.”
But the Dirty’s 7s wasn’t just about exacting some revenge. It was the first experiment for a club that is not only fielding three sides this summer but also in a mild state of flux.
“We have about 20 players who are competing for the elite side,” Cabrera said of the most competitive side. “But we keep losing players to the national teams – Irene Gardner is in Moscow for the 7s world cup, Kit Kat [Katy Augustyn] for the Nations Cup at the end of July – so we’re continually having to rework the pools. Since we’re losing these senior players, we’ve been asking a lot of our younger players, and they’re stepping up.”
Always reliable, Phoebe Boone, Lucy Croy and Sarah Davis helped ground Berkeley in Palm Springs, and Cabrera was impressed by college-aged players Sever, Genevieve Ireland and Erin Overcash (who received her first 15s cap against France earlier this month). They’re all in the running for that 12-woman team that will head to 7s nationals in early August, but there’s plenty of pressure from the ranks below.
The All Blues are also fielding a “club participation” side, which is more about fine-tuning skills and fitness upkeep for 15s, but also includes a handful of players eying the elite side. Assistant coach Brandon Sparks has also cultivated a developmental side composed primarily of college players. Should the region receive an additional seed to nationals, it's the college side - not the club side - that will push for contention.
“We have a lot of college girls playing with us now,” Cabrera said. “We’re looking to the future, and this is a good way to ensure that these college kids are better and more knowledgeable when they come back to us. They’ll get lots of playing time and the opportunity to play higher – Erin Overcash and Genevieve Ireland are great examples of that.”
There will be players “on the bubble,” who will have to decide whether being a substitute for the elite side or a starter on the club side is more attractive, but Cabrera asserts that the competitive environment is very transparent.
“The players understand what’s required of them,” Cabrera said. “On the elite side, we’re looking for speed, fitness and solid fundamentals – catching and passing. There are so many on the elite squad now, so we’ll see who comes up.”
Berkeley will continue to develop throughout a few more tournaments this summer – this weekend in San Francisco, and then the Santa Barbara 7s before the regional qualifier in Seattle on July 20. There, the All Blues will see more quality sides like the Seattle Breakers and Emerald City Mudhens, who pepper their preparation with Canadian tournaments.
“We always want to make it to the final and win,” Cabrera considered Berkeley’s outlook this summer, “but we have a bit of work to do. We’re losing leaders but we have up-and-coming players ready to step up to the plate. We’re going to continue to work them hard and prepare them for the toughest battle we can imagine.”