Best game of the Women’s Premier League championship in terms of drama occurred between newcomer Atlanta and New York. The two teams met in the 5th place semifinal, and although the San Diego vs. D.C. game was closer in final score, this game brought that try-for-try anxiety.
For Atlanta, the eventual 22-14 victor, expectations for its first WPL post-season were undefined.
“We’ve had 11 personnel changes since last season,” Atlanta coach Jason Payne reflected on the 2012 DI club championship team. “It’s almost a complete rebuild. We went from a very experienced backline to a relatively inexperienced line, so we changed our plan of attack to suit that a bit more, something a bit easier to get us where we wanted to be on the field. … But they’ve been getting better and better as the season goes on.”
New York is in a similar situation, with young but promising athletes holding important positions. Two youngsters accounted for the teams’ first tries – the first from former East Carolina All American Jessica Peterson, who has brought some pop to the Atlanta centers; the other from speedy New York wing Lisa Roselin, who took a nice inside line in for the try, a score that originated with a Nicole Humphries pick-off. New York flyhalf Mary McCarthy – who is also quite young but truly exciting – hit the conversion for the 7-5 lead.
The game was incredibly even. The forwards matched up nicely, with former Brown captain Izzy McKinnon and fellow flanker Lauren Hart doing well to fill the big shoes of Liz Snodgrass and Tia Blosser, both of whom have taken this year off. Kennesaw State grad Cassidy Whitaker, a replacement lock, has raw, powerful talent, and is another rookie whom Payne is keeping an eye on. Rosie Meisner was the undeniable heart of the New York forwards and was amazing in the lineouts – if she could get a fingertip on it, the ball was won.
As mentioned, the Atlanta backs are young, but wing Judy Dickinson and her speed stood out. She graduated from the ARC Angels, Atlanta’s DII team, and has been a nice addition, especially since longtime winger Lauren Waltz suffered a career-ending injury during the last league game. Payne credits fullback Jess Wooden for stepping into the void of veteran leadership, and the Eagle pool player hasn’t let up on the performance aspect. The New York backs were most exciting at #10 and the defense of fullback Yoshi Shapiro, who not only had some try-saving tackles but forced turnovers in crunching collisions.
We see the best of New York’s backline just before halftime, as a Meisner-saved lineout works out cleanly and center Kaitlin Ruggiero runs the perfect inside line into space. She offloads to McCarthy in support and the forwards are there once the flyhalf is brought to ground. No. 8 Jordyn Lexton slices through the fringe and the ball pops to Roselin motoring around the corner. The wing is pushed out of bounds near the 22 meter and the whistle sounds, 7-5 New York. Atlanta gets lucky; that series had all the makings of a brewing try.
New York came into the second half literally flying – bouncing off tackles as the sidelines whooped along. But a turnover saw a quick kick put the ball near the tryline and an eventual held-up try. From the 5m scrum, Chou cut back into traffic, sucking in some defenders and setting up an overload wide. As the ball worked down the line, Dickinson would have surely scored if it wasn’t for the Roselin high tackle (yellow card), so a penalty try was awarded. Wooden slotted the extras for the 12-7 lead.
A man down? No bother. Inside center and Eagle Rebecca Brafman orchestrated an eager return, and New York once again enforced their collective will on Atlanta. At the tryline, when it counted, Brafman dove over the line to put New York back on top, 14-12.
Those of course were the last of New York’s points and the final lead change came through familiar hands: Heather Hale. Working her magic from flyhalf, Hale still has crafty speed when she wants to turn it on. The perfect scenario: A hesitant defense between her and the try line, 10 meters away. Hale spotted a gap and charge through it, five points for the Atlanta 17-14 lead.
Final score came after an errant pass from Brafman near New York’s 22. New York was awarded the subsequent scrum, but Atlanta wheeled it and reset the set piece. No. 8 Maddy Wilbanks, last year’s DI championship MVP, picked from the base and powered into the corner, 22-14.
“I thought if we could play a bit of territory with them we could have some advantage against their backfield,” Payne said. “For us, after the Minneosta [Twin Cities] game, it was about the senior players stepping up and seeing what they could do and getting some leadership back on the field. So it wasn’t really about them [New York]; we had to focus on getting our game back on the field, not losing the ball and being tighter on defense.
“It was a win, but it was a tight win, so they’ll be happy about it,” Payne added. “Next game is going to be a difficult challenge as well and it’d be awesome to come away with fifth place.”
Tries: Peterson, Hale, Wilbanks, penalty try
New York 14
Tries: Roselin, Brafman
Convs: McCarthy 2