No team is exactly the same as the year before, but Chicago North Shore wouldn't mind a little deja vu. The reigning DI women's club champion heads down to Elite 8 in Atlanta with the #1 seed and will most likely see one of their playoff opponents from last year before potentially advancing to the final on Nov. 11.
North Shore field captain Jenny Lui during last year's DI final.
(James Cameron photo)
But 2012 was always going to be a different experience for CNS. Firstly, their league changed. Their best opponent, Glendale, left CR2 for the Women's Premier League (where they're currently leading their division). The Minnesota Valkyries replaced them (and went 0-5, outscored 41-208) and St. Louis was barred from competition having forfeited matches the previous two years.
And then of course there's the personnel shifts. The most influential vacancy was Pam Kosanke, who left more than just the flyhalf position open when she accepted USA Rugby's offer to become the Chief Marketing Officer. Sara Corcoran, who would have been the likely replacement, also moved on. North Shore said goodbye to up-and-coming wing Alyssa Green, who boots up with Beantown these days, as well as Sarah Walsh, who was commuting from California to key games.
"Teams change so much from year to year and we're no different," North Shore field captain Jenny Lui said. "The thing that has remained consistent has been our heart and team chemistry. We've had a theme of, 'No one gets left behind," ever since our car trouble in Minnesota, and that mentality has treated us really well this season."
For all their changes, North Shore has plenty of veterans keeping the team afloat. Alongside Lui, co-captain and front row Maggie Craig has fulfilled her formal leadership role wonderfully; selector Noby Takaki has worked incredibly hard to return from injury and is more focused than ever; and notables like 15s Eagle Kate Daley, 7s Eagle Teena Mastrangela (who will be playing in Atlanta despite being listed as an injured reserve for the women's 7s trip to China), lock duo Lani Larson and Nova Reimer, speedy Alison Freidheim and potent back row Christiane Pheil reinforce a solid squad.
North Shore encountered little resistance all season, going 5-0 and outscoring opponents 189-24. Their final league game against Chicago ended in a 19-7 win, the closest of all their matches this fall, but also occurred after North Shore was guaranteed a berth to nationals.
The reigning champs will play eighth seed Philadelphia in the quarterfinals. Philly returns to the national stage after finishing third in CR3 with a 4-2 record, having lost to Atlanta and NOVA during the regular season. Although Philly fields a competent backline, their power revolves around the pack. Power runners like No. 8 Kristin Aliberto and prop Jen Krain are hallmarks of that punishing fringe attack, but as long as North Shore are disciplined in the tackle and breakdown, and move the ball wide appropriately, the Chicago side should advance to the semis easily.
"Our forwards are experienced and work well together," Lui said in the face of Philly's strong pack. "They've gone above and beyond, and stepped up to every challenge we've thrown at them this season. So, I expect nothing different this coming weekend."
Should CNS come out of Saturday unscathed, they'll see the winner of NOVA v ORSU. North Shore faced both of these teams during last year's playoffs, defeating ORSU 21-0 in the quarters and NOVA 11-10 in the semis.
"Last year was last year," Lui said when reflecting on the pressure of mimicking the past. "Each year is a clean slate, so we're looking to prove ourselves all over again. The fact that we're the reigning champs isn't really a factor to us. We're focused on the here and now, and how we perform this weekend."