The odds were against them, but California will return to the women’s DI college national championship thanks to a spectacular weekend. Entering the Pacific Mountain Conference North play-in as the lowest seed, the Golden Bears beat UC Davis 22-14 on Saturday and then Chico State, which enjoyed a bye (against the absent Air Force) on day one, 27-17. Cal had lost to both teams during the regular season.
“We have a lot of potential as a team, and we’ve been working toward fulfilling it the last few months,” Cal co-captain Hannah Luke Edwards reflected on her team’s slow start to the season. “We had some new players in important positions, so we spent time working out our system and figuring out how they fit into the scheme. In the last few weeks, things started coming together for us.”
Edwards acknowledged several of her veteran teammates for buoying the team while members grew into their roles.
“Kristara Gipson holds the backline together; she really is the glue for them,” Edwards said of the flyhalf. “The other co-captain, [flanker] Aubrey Huey, has a level head and knows how to compose the team.
“A couple of sophomores have really stepped up, too,” Edwards continued. “Lauren Butler, she didn’t start last year, but she’s gone through an amazing change. There are few players who can run through tacklers like her. And Genevieve Ireland, she plays No. 8 and had to take over for All-American Jenn Sever, who graduated last year. She had some big shoes to fill but is doing great.”
Time had run out for Cal, which entered the PMC play-in tournament as the North #4 seed. Either they went 2-0 against teams that had defeated them during league, or the Bears’ opportunity to start realizing their potential ended. The first test was UC Davis, which beat Cal 21-10 in early February.
“We felt that was a wrong we could right,” Edwards said of that early season loss. “It was a great game [Saturday]; Davis played hard and didn’t make it easy on us by any means. But the difference came through our athletic forwards and the fact that there aren’t many who can challenge our backline.”
Stacey Wong, Laureina Toler, Brenda Miranda-Gomez and Gina Feracota scored tries, while Kristara Gipson added a conversion. The team had only made two substitutions during the close semifinal, and relied on their superior fitness to keep the starting lineup fresh for Chico State on Sunday. Chico not only rested on Saturday but also had a premature taste of victory on their minds. When the two teams met two weeks ago, Chico State took home a big 55-27 win.
“Kristara didn’t play in the second half of the Chico game,” Edwards said. “We were very close at halftime,” Edwards thought on the March 2 matchup. “But then Kristara didn’t play in the second half, we had some injuries and lost some key players. That really impacted the game. Since then, we’ve worked a lot on defense – mostly making the tackles – and made sure we’re all on the same page.”
Cal was on point and took home a 27-17 victory. Wong bagged her second and third tries of the weekend, while Kelly Doran ran in a brace of tries. Vickie Garica added a fifth try, and Ireland tacked on a conversion.
Now that California has solidified their spot at nationals, the next month will be spent tweaking and refining.
“Our pack is really physically strong,” Edwards said. “During that doubleheader, we were pushing Chico back late in the game. But we still have things to work on. In order to take it to final four, we need to see more than one move ahead.
“If you look at the scoresheet, it definitely looks like the back are our strength, but we’re balanced in a lot of ways,” Edwards continued. “They’re fast and aggressive as a group, and they’re young and very athletic. We’re so spoiled to have some incredibly fast people, but now we just have to find ways to unleash their speed and get them into open field.”
There’s work to be done, but Cal’s up for the test. Even as Edwards and team look to the near future, they’re not intimidated by the well known opponents that await them at the Round of 16 in Palo Alto, Calif.
“They beat us fair and square, but we’re not the same that we were then,” Edwards reflected on Cal’s 38-0 loss to Stanford during league. “We already beat two teams that beat us this year. We’re excited and ready to give it another go.”
Cal will be joined by Stanford, Women’s Cougar Rugby and the Texas champion during the region’s portion of the Round of 16.