UCLA's match against UC San Diego was a must-win for the reigning Southern California DI Women's College champs, but not because the outcome would affect its bid to nationals. SoCal is sending two teams to the championships this year. The team needed a psychological boost after its 32-5 loss against UCSD two weeks ago, and got their redemption with yesterday's 29-20 win.
In the teams' first meeting, UCLA scored first and put together a strong 20 minutes. But a bad injury stunted the team's forward momentum and San Diego's powerful forwards took control of the game.
"This game was all about mental focus," UCLA coach John Wooler said. "We needed to rewind and remember that we played well those first 20 minutes against San Diego. We didn't change our strategy and used our backline to exploit holes in the centers."
Five minutes in, All American flyhalf Tia Blythe, who accounted for two tries and two conversions, grubbered through the line. San Diego's wing collected the ball, but with insufficient support in the tackle, UCLA's Yui Kawakatsu able to pick up the quickly released ball for the try.
Another five minutes later and UCLA had a 12-0 lead when Blythe put Jordan Klein into space and under the posts. There the match stood for about 38 minutes, before San Diego's forwards drove the ball down the field and closed the half with a try, 12-5.
At halftime, Wooler reminded his players to rely on their kicking game to relieve pressure and get the ball behind San Diego's forwards. Unfortunately for UCLA, the advice didn't sink in immediately and the team learned its lesson after another San Diego try to kick off the second stanza.
"We made a classic error," Wooler said of UCSD's second try. "We tried to play the ball on our 22, turned it over, San Diego recovered it and scored. We made a couple of mental errors, but it's just repetition."
The teams traded scores, with Rebecca Pan and Blythe running in the Bruins' second-half tries to put nine points between the squads. MVP Lucy Tin did a great job at scrumhalf.
"Lucy made up for what we lacked in the last game, distributing the ball to our backs quickly when there was messy ball," Wooler explained. "She glued it all together between the forwards and backs, got the ball out of the ruck quickly, and allowed the backs to fire off a solid platform."
Prop Kat Telles and flankers Bri Mendoza and Cassie Tong (c) picked it up against the physical San Diego forwards.
UCLA, which fielded nine rookies with four or five months' experience, has seen a lot of injuries this season, and that added to mental preparation that Wooler engendered the last few weeks. "Our rookies have seen a lot of injuries and surgeries, and that's not good," Wooler said. "In practice, we focus on good technique. We needed to show that when you make a technically good tackle, and aren't falling off of contact, then you'll be OK. That gets you over the psychological hump.
"And we wanted to prove that we were competitive with a top team in this region," Wooler added. "We turned that corner, and it's great when the players see it for themselves that when we focus, push it wide, we get results. It's a good exercise."
Wooler admitted that it would have been tough to lose two games in a row and the team now has the confidence it needed to make the push toward nationals.
San Diego has the edge in the standings on bonus points and both will finish their seasons against Arizona State and UC Santa Barbara, teams both have defeated earlier in the season.