Women's Premier League Season Set to Kick Off

The Women's Premier League (WPL) begins its seventh season, and the suspense of opening weekend has yet to wane. Players have swapped jerseys, newcomers have earned starting positions, and a slate of new coaches are earning their WPL wings this weekend.

The two conferences are geographically grouped, and reigning champion Glendale headlines the Blue Conference along with Berkeley, San Diego, and ORSU. The Raptors will place many familiar faces on the pitch, but several will embrace new roles. Glendale's Director of Rugby, Mark Bullock, has replaced Mike Fealey as head coach, and Women's Rugby World Cup Eagles Jamie Burke and Kitt Wagner Ruiz have assumed assistant coaching positions since retiring. The duo directs a forward pack that is missing Jen Montoya and Mary Pezzulo, but also revitalized by the international experience of Super Series Eagles Joanna Kitlinski and Laura Miller. The migratory Molly Kinsella now calls Glendale her home club and pumps up the second row.

The backs will toy with familiarity, too, as Candace Ruiz splits time at flyhalf with 2014 MVP Hannah Stolba, who is also an asset at fullback. And Eagle scrumhalf Jenny Lui will eventually don the Raptor jersey once she relocates from Chicago.

"Mike [Fealey] and Mark [Bullock] have different styles and that will play out," Burke said of the many changes affecting Glendale. "Our two centers from last year are not playing - one's in Vietnam and the other's getting married - and we have two really young, talented centers. We're excited to see how they do. It's a rookie backline to Glendale but they're not rookies to the sport of rugby. It'll be a different look from 12 to 14."
Glendale hosts San Diego inside Infinity Stadium Sunday. The Surfers are coming off another successful 7s season - one that outstrips the accomplishments of fellow WPL teams. But in 15s, San Diego has settled into that fifth-place limbo - the best of tier two. The team's relying on pillars like captain Deven Owsiany, Kara Matthews, Liz Trujillo, Mollie Martin, and Tia Blythe, but will miss the injured Josie Ziluca and Sabrina Kraft. Talia Carrasquillo is a Northern Iowa product and nice addition to the back row.

"We are excited to have one of our strongest teams ever talent-wise going into the 2015 season," Kraft asserted. "These days a lot of people associate the Surfers with 7s and our strong backs. But our forwards have been playing together for a few years now, and we have a mighty strong pack as well. We are going to do what we can to place top two in our conference to be able to have a shot at the title this year."

That would mean getting past Berkeley, and that's never an easy task. The All Blues also have a new head coach, Katrina Logan, who has played for and coached Berkeley, Stanford, and various representative teams. Should the full roster be available this season, then opposition could see an intimidating lineup that includes Phoebe Boone, Katie Chou, Sarah Davis, Ruth Bryson, Sarah Walsh, and Katy Augustyn. Age-grade star Frieda Fetu'u and Beantown transfer Evan Hoese are also fun to watch.

The wild card is ORSU. The Oregon team doesn't boast the depth of stardom that fellow conference teams share, and yet beat San Diego twice, Berkeley, and played Glendale to within four points during the 2014 regular season. ORSU certainly isn't without: Anna Symonds, Jess Shipley, San Juanita Moreno, and Molly Luft (who is moving to fullback) anchor the banks. Melody Glasgow and Adrienne Acosta are veteran front rowers, and Rachel Johnson and player-coach Beckett Royce are expert back rows. The University of Oregon has sent two prospects: try-scorer Zoe Wilson and prop force Paris Hart.

"Overall, we've tweaked our attack, working hard at practice, and clicking well on and off of the pitch," Johnson reported. "We're ready to come out strong and improve on our standing from last season."

All of the Red Conference teams can echo Johnson's sentiments, but none so loudly as Twin Cities. The Amazons lost the 2014 title by one point, and will begin its quest to the final with a Week 1 game against Atlanta. The Harlequins gave the Zons their toughest league games last year, but the Minnesota side is the clear favorite in this pool.
The former WPL champion has the best center pairing in the league - Sylvia Braaten and Lynelle Kugler - who have been playing alongside Stacey Bridges, Amanda Kingzett, Anna Brown, Ali Gillberg, and Kaelene Lundstrum for years. The younger generation of Katana Howard, Mel Krug, Rachel Lentsch, and Jacie Vonada offer previews into the dominating seasons ahead. Tying it all together is longtime coach Roger Bruggemeyer. That consistency - behind the clipboard and on the field - is a huge boon.

Unfortunately for the Harlequins, its roster isn't looking as sturdy. Judy Dickson and Heather Hale suffered season-ending injuries, while Ros Chou and Patty Jervey battle nagging ailments. Liz Snodgrass misses this important opener, but she and fellow veteran Laketa Sutton will be inspirations going forward.

Kassidi Wynter has embraced the front row and refined her game during time with Stars Rugby and the American Rugby Pro Training Center (ARPTC). Life University's Samantha Elmore, who used up her eligibility, is looking good in the back row, while former All American Lara Gartner injects some youthful vigor into Atlanta's game. A lot of moving pieces for Dylan Fawsitt, who transitions from scrum coach to head coach this year.

The D.C. Furies and New York finished 7th and 8th, respectively, in last year's championship, and restart the league season against each other. The Furies have seen its players scatter across the country in recent years - Jess Shipley to ORSU, Jeanna Beard to Glendale, Hunter Griendling to ARPTC, Lauren Rhode to the OTC (and now New York) - and are rebuilding. New coach Gwesyn Price-Jones hails from Wales and will look toward captains Ellen Danford and Sam Pankey for stability.

New York head coach Wil Snape spent his summer with the USA Rugby AIG Women's Junior All Americans and hopes to continue those winning ways with his home club. Players like Rebecca Brafman, Mary McCarthy, Cynthia Wright, and Lisa Roselin are the work horses around the pitch, while recent graduates like Andrea Villanova (Penn State), Chelsey Sveinsson (Stanford), and Shelby Lin (Harvard), and OTC regular Lauren Rhode keep the level of play at a premium.

Visit the Women's Premier League homepage for more information, including the full schedule.

Week 1

Saturday, Sept. 12
Berkeley @ ORSU (2 p.m. PDT)
San Diego @ Glendale (3 p.m. MDT)

Sunday, Sept. 13
Atlanta @ Twin Cities (11 a.m. CDT)
New York @ D.C. Furies (11 a.m. EDT)