Last weekend was more than just an opener for the Women’s Premier League. At Life University, the elite competition witnessed two firsts: reigning DI champion Atlanta’s inauguration into the league (taking the Minnesota Valkyries’ place); and Adriaan Ferris’ debut as Berkeley’s head coach. Neither aspect disappointed, as the WPL newcomer held its own against the reigning WPL champ, and the All Blues returned home a 29-10 victory.
Solid set pieces helped the All Blues dominate possession and territory during the first half, allowing Berkeley to lead 19-3 before the break. No. 8 Jenn Sever accounted for the first two tries, the latter coming from a pushover scrum, and forward MVP Katie Chou dotted down the half-ender. Ruth Bryson contributed two conversions.
Berkeley was able to produce the 16-point lead despite losing their third-string scrumhalf, Melissa Smit, early in the match. Smit, a former inside center who hasn’t played since her days with Stanford, was the only scrumhalf who traveled to Atlanta, as Eagle halfbacks Irene Gardner and Jossy Tseng remained in Berkeley. Phoebe Boone stepped up, moving from flanker to #9, while recent Stanford star Frances Wehrwein filled in with the loose forwards.
Boone’s a professional, but that shake-up meant that the forwards had to work extra hard to provide stable ball, and the All Blues did run into some breakdown issues that resulted in a second-half yellow card. Still, Ferris tipped his hat to Chou and hooker Katy Augustyn for flooding the field with aggression and keeping the game moving forward.
“No, we weren’t at full strength, but we brought the best side we could,” said Ferris, who also mentioned that Nathalie Marchino is among the six or seven absent players contending for a starting position. “But I don’t want to take anything away from Atlanta. They were well structured, able to turn over the ball, and exerted pressure at times. They really picked up their game in the second half … [but] we may have had a better understanding of the game.”
Atlanta invested in its kicking game, but Berkeley is seasoned in the counterattack. Perhaps the Harlequins were looking to take advantage of Cynthia Wright, typically a loose forward but whom Ferris tried out at wing. The risk paid off, as Wright, unshaken, scored Berkeley’s two tries in the second half. Atlanta recognized Wright as the backs’ MVP.
The Harlequins scored their lone try of the game late in the second half, sending fullback Jess Wooden through a seam, 29-10.
Ferris credited the previous coaching regime for readying a group of players who can perform – and win – after only two weeks with a new coach. The New Zealander inherited a group of intelligent, well drilled players, so Ferris’ job revolves around defining certain aspects of the game and building awareness.
“We had a lot of penalties at the ruck and point of contact, for things like not rolling away quickly enough,” Ferris said. “We have to figure out we can prevent that, how can we take the ball into contact and clear it out quickly? So we’ll be working on being more effective with the ball in contact and speed in the ruck, so we can use quick ball.
“They’re a great group of girls,” Ferris added. “They train hard and understand there’s a lot of pressure being national champions. But they also understand that was last year, not this year, and they have to keep working.”
In other Red Conference news, Twin Cities Amazons shut out San Diego 62-0 in Minnesota. Two undefeated teams will play each other in Berkeley next weekend, while Atlanta travels to the Surfers.