Looking at the Brown v Virginia scoreline, it appeared that today was the first episode of The Patty Ekpo/Chelsea Garber Show. The Brown players accounted for 33 of the 38 points scored against Virginia, which managed 10 points in the waning minutes of today’s Women’s DI College National Championship quarterfinals.
“Part of our game plan is to play from touch line to touch line,” Brown coach Kerri Heffernan said. “But a lot has to happen in between the lines in order for that to happen. Patty is a recipient of that hard work. She’s a freshman and a very unique player.”
Garber wasn’t so much a recipient as an engineer.
“We’re a good team, and Chelsea is one of the best college players in the country,” Heffernan said. “She manages the game phenomenally, has great running and passing skills, and is just so impressive. She’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of player.”
The seamless halfback pairing of Garber and Blair Station set the platform for a consistent, potent backline. Centers Michelle Vander Ploeg and Shakeela Faulkner, who scored the final try of the game, have a great connection as well, and match their carrying skills with hard-hitting defense.
The defense in general played well, save the waning moments when Virginia center Sharlyn Carter scored a try. Heffernan credited the speedy defensive reorganization to the team’s experiences during spring break, when Brown traveled to Scotland for three games.
“We hadn’t had an international trip in a long time, and when we went to Scotland, we played powerful, well organized, forward-dominated clubs,” Heffernan said. “It was really great for us. They had to play grown women – players who know how to carry, hit and are brutal in the breakdown. When we came back to the college game, we were more mature.”
It was an important tour for Brown, which had to rebuild their pack after graduating many forwards last year. While both teams’ scrums struggled a little bit, the lineouts looked good, and Heffernan was pleased with the outcome.
“We still have some work to do in the scrums, but we got a good grade overall today,” Heffernan said. “We’re not big, but we work hard, are disciplined, and have a good profile.”
Brown and Virginia are quite familiar with each other and play a similar wide-open, quick-ball game. Typically they play in a pre-season friendly, but this year’s quarterfinal was the teams’ first meeting of the season. Rewind a year prior, and it was Virginia that was celebrating their double-overtime victory over Brown to advance to the semifinals.
“That game was absolutely a motivation; it really broke our heart last year,” Heffernan said of the 2011 quarterfinal. “We have such respect for Virginia and [coach] Nancy [Kechner] and have a great relationship with the team. They’re always tough to play against and we did not take them lightly heading into today’s game.”
In one sense, Brown had an easier road to the quarterfinals, having beat North Carolina 62-5 on Saturday, while Virginia ousted Texas 26-5 for the quarterfinal bid. On the other hand, Heffernan could only afford 19 (expensive) players’ flights to Mobile, Ala., so there was little resting of starters for today’s big game.
The team is hamstrung by funding, and if Brown can only bring 19 players to the Final Four in California – where they’ll face host Stanford – then they’ll be severely handicapped. That said, Heffernan has the utmost confidence in her team.
“I haven’t asked anything of this team that they haven’t been able to give,” Heffernan said. “They’re incredibly steady and rise to the occasion. It’s wonderful because it’s always a gray area with college teams, when the pressure or physicality will get to them. But after watching them play grown women in Scotland, I knew this group was special. When we came back to the states, they didn’t miss a step.”
Heffernan is optimistic about the team’s enthusiasm to fundraise in order to further their success. They don’t get much help from the university and therefore have a tenuous relationship that results in a collective chip on the team’s shoulder. The team works extremely hard off the field to be good rugby players, and they’re prepared to be good fundraisers as well.
When Brown does arrive in Palo Alto, Calif., they’ll face a different Stanford. The last time Brown played the Cardinal, Jonathan Griffin was the long-standing coach, but since then, Matt Sherman has taken over. Heffernan is curious what the new brand of Stanford rugby looks like, but one thing’s for sure: They’ll be good, well rested and looking to impress their hometown fans.