The Pacific Coast playoffs for women’s DII colleges will occur this weekend, and of the four teams attending, two are perennials: Pacific Northwest’s Washington State and Western Washington. Nor Cal teams Humboldt and UC Santa Cruz have post-season experience, but their program success has been interrupted by damaging seasons in division one.
That was the case for Humboldt four years ago. After that frustrating DI season, the team invited former coach Jon Mooney back into the fold. Mooney returned to a team that suffered from a huge experience divide, with a handful of juniors and seniors playing alongside a majority of rookies. He immediately strove to develop the roster and get everyone playing on the same page. That meant a devotion to basics and individual skills.
“What wins games is rucking, tackling, supporting and running hard with the ball,” Mooney explained. “If you can do that, then you’ll do well. While it’s nice to have some things up your sleeve, you can’t base a game plan off of that, so we keep it simple. All fall, we barely worked on scrums, lineouts or even ran plays. If your players can barely pass, ruck or tackle, then plays are no good.”
Three years later, Humboldt is a very different team. Humboldt went 4-1 during the Nor Cal season, with its lone loss coming at the hands of playoff-ineligible San Francisco BATS. Both squads had beaten teams by similar spreads heading into their final match of the season, and the game ended with a 17-5 decision to the BATS. It was a great defensive game for Humboldt considering the BATS had averaged 49 points per game.
“I’m pretty happy with how they’re playing right now,” Mooney said. “Their tackling is really good, rucking is good – although there’s always room for improvement there – and their passing is great. They’re starting to read the field, which is the next stage of development. They’re not just looking at what’s in front of them, but reading one play ahead.”
Key to Humboldt’s success is the leadership of scrumhalf Annie Fehrenbach. Mooney described the hard-working, three-year captain as a quiet leader, who is soft spoken but finds her voice when need be. All American and No. 8 Aoibheann Cline is a very competitive player who keeps her teammates motivated, and flyhalf Loni Carrera and lock Adriana Forrest all know the game well and play it hard.
“Yes, the team looks up to those players because they’re good,” Mooney said, “but they’re also the ones always out there working on conditioning and busting their butts at practice. The players really strive to be like them.”
The aforementioned will be key in the team’s second playoff appearance in recent years. Last year, Humboldt played Washington State in the play-ins for the fourth seed to Pacific Coast playoffs, and the outcome was less than desirable.
“We came out really flat against Washington State last year, and they scored 25 points in 25 minutes,” Mooney said. “I generally don’t yell at the team, but we weren’t making tackles and were sloppy. I told them, ‘We can tell the other team they can go on to playoffs because we’re not playing.’ Of the few times I’ve gotten mad at the team, they’ve always turned it around. They scored first in the second half and held Washington State off the board the rest of the game. Had we played the first 25 minutes the way we played the last 55, then it would have been a very different game."
That first-half lull was a mentality flaw, and Mooney has ensured those lessons will not be forgotten anytime soon.
“I knew we would play one of the Washington teams [in the playoffs], so I reminded the girls all season that we were going to face them again, and it was going to be tough,” Mooney said.
Mooney also assigned some goal-oriented exercises to keep the players' minds engaged. Players had to list their goals, what actions needed to be taken to achieve those goals, what barriers might prevent them, and what solutions existed.
“It was very interesting,” Mooney said. “I was really impressed with the amount of thought the players put into it. We sat down at practice and everyone read their answers to the team. It took us two hours to go through everyone.”
Mooney’s next assignment came in prose form. The coach had read an inspiring quote to the effect of: Champions write their own story and proceed to make their story come true. He laid out the beginning of the story, then had the players write their own endings.
“We all had the same beginning to the story: They show up at the Pacific Coast Championship and walk onto the field against Western Washington,” Mooney said. “And then the players had to finish the story and fill it in with affirmative statements. There was a 100-word limit, and they wrote pages. I was trying to get them to think about goals, that they’re in control of how the games play out and it’s not just happenstance. If you work hard on the right things, good things will happen and you can’t leave things up to fate. Those exercises really helped [with our mentality].”
As prepared physically and psychologically as Humboldt is, there are bound to be some surprises. While a good amount of the 25-deep roster has last year’s playoffs in their recent memory, there are still a good number of freshmen and first-years playing in their first post-season game. Mooney is excited to see how fullback Chelsea Brunett and wing Jordan Ludtke will perform under this new pressure. Both are up-and-comers and picked up the game very quickly.
“Of the 25 players we have, 15-18 are solid,” Mooney said. “The rest are all good athletes, but they’re still developing. They have good and bad days but just don’t have the experience yet to be consistent every game.”
That said, Mooney feels the team has a shot at progressing past the first round of nationals should Humboldt win on Saturday (Pacific Coast has two seeds to nationals). If they get the Pac Coast #1 seed, Humboldt will face Southern California champion Cal State University – Northridge, a first-year team that has surprised the field. If Humboldt finishes second in the Pacific Coast, they’ll take on West champion Wyoming, which has struggled to bank many quality games in the forfeit-riddled ERRFU region.
“We haven’t played the DII SoCal teams, but when we go to Scrum by the Sea, we enter the competitive division as the only DII team,” Mooney said. “We finished second the last two years, so we could get through to the next phase as well. It just depends on how injuries impact us. We're coming off a full spring season, so we’re kind of beat up.
“We definitely haven’t peaked yet,” Mooney added. “In two more years, I expect we’ll be at our best and we’ll really hit stride. Again, we’re trying to rebuild a program rather than just win everything all at once. As long as we play the best we can, if we lose, we lost to a better team. We’ve surpassed everything we’ve achieved in the last three years, so I’m really happy right now. Obviously we want to win and go as far as we can into the national playoffs, but I’m incredibly proud of this team and the work they’ve put in over the last three years.”
Pacific Coast DII Women College Playoffs
Saturday, April 7
2 p.m. - Humboldt (Nor Cal #1) v Western Washington (Pac NW #2)
4 p.m. - UC Santa Cruz (Nor Cal #2) v Washington State (Pac NW #1)
Sunday, April 8
2 p.m. - Championship
4 p.m. - Consolation