The Red conference of the Women’s Premier League kicks off on Sunday, and the league isn’t nearly as predictable as the previous two seasons.
The two-time reigning champions, New York, are undergoing some significant personnel changes both on the field and off. Former coach Ryan Dunnett has been replaced by another New Zealander, Brendon Daniel. He arrived a couple of weeks ago and has minimal face time with the new-look squad.
“It would be nice to have the coaching stability of a team like the Valkyries or the Amazons,” New York captain Rebecca Brafman said, “but Drew and Ryan have each put their own spin on things, building on a strong base that's been our signature as a club. In a way, although it's stressful to conduct coaching searches, each coach comes with a new perspective, and views our existing systems with new eyes. Drew worked with us on a commitment to defense and a solid launch, and Ryan really strengthened our attacking abilities by putting some intelligent patterns into place.
“We've been successful on the national level because we've had the personnel willing and able to adjust to new strategies and game plans,” Brafman added, “and I think that Brendon will put his own spin on things.”
Assistant coach Heidi Rubenstein has also been helping with the coaching transitions, and she’ll be key in solidifying a less experienced team on the field. Carrie Dubray, Maura Weikman and Tyshawn Henry have retired, and Kristin Aliberto, Dani Goodman-Levy, Jenna Flateman, Laura Bilizarian, and Saburah Posner have moved away.
There’s a still a strong core of veterans to anchor the team, including Rachel Hughes and Molly Dengler in the front row; lock Rosie Meisner, who’s one of the best lineout jumpers in the country; routinely strong back row players Katie Brethel and Phaidra Knight; and Brafman and Kath Ryan in the backline. Kaitlin Ruggerio has stepped up to the flyhalf position, and while Vanesha McGee figures out her involvement this season, New York has some young, fast wings looking to take over the finishing positions.
“Overall, I'm looking forward to seeing our young team prove themselves in what I think will be the toughest conference in the WPL this season,” Brafman said.
New York will begin its WPL campaign at home against San Diego. The newcomers won DI last year and eagerly replaced ORSU, which dropped down to DI. More than any other team in the competition, the Surfers need to make a statement that they belong in the WPL, and they’ll have to do so under the toughest circumstances – on the road against the reigning champs.
Richie Walker returns as San Diego’s coach, and a core of vets will drive the Surfers’ inaugural season. Marea Blue, Casey Field, Val Griffeth, Kirstin Hartos and Emily Ogata were all integral to San Diego’s DI championship run, and they’re all back for the WPL. Shaina Turley is fresh off the Women’s Nations Cup with the Eagles and performed phenomenally at flanker. The Surfers have also picked up Emilie Bydwell, formerly of Beantown, and electric center who lit up the summer 7s scene the last couple of months.
While San Diego fights for its first-ever win in the WPL, the crosstown rivalry in Minnesota will initiate the other half of the Red conference’s season. The Minnesota Valkyries and Twin Cities Amazons will face off in what is always a heated game.
The Valkyries have typically had the upper hand in this matchup, but according to their CIPP roster, the team is running low on numbers, and that will certainly affect depth.
There’s some great returning talent in Libby Berg, Tracy Call, Christy Ringgenberg, Jen Triemestra and Kristin Zdanczewicz. Lauren Daly has suited up with the Valkyries, and will bring her recent Nations Cup experience to the field, as has Michigan State star Adetayo Mafe.
The Amazons are looking healthier, and therefore are favored in Sunday’s game. Sylvia Braaten, Amanda Kingzett, Lynelle Kugler, Desiree Markovich, Rebecca Radtke and Tonnie Wulff are all impact players who will challenge the Valkyries. The Amazons have also picked up Stacey Bridges, and welcome back Kaelene Lundstrum, who had a great summer with the Eagles at the Nations Cup and the USA Developmental 7s team at the All Star championship.
But never underestimate the power of a crosstown rivalry, and both teams will be looking to start their WPL season with a win.
Stay tuned for match reports and player/coach feedback.