North Shore to put on a show in Women's DI National Championship versus Saracens

LAFAYETTE, Colo. - It is hard to label a reigning USA Rugby Club National Champion an unknown, but for teams hoping to get some scouting done on the Seattle Saracens program, only a trip to the Pacific Northwest - on both sides of the border - will do.

Luckily for Women's Division I National Championship Finalist Chicago North Shore, the Saracens have seen just as little of their June 4 opponent. So when they clash at Infinity Park this weekend, it will no doubt be the best team that lifts the trophy.

Between its 'elite' and 'premier' women's sides, coach Tim Zern estimates his player pool takes the field against premier-level competition about 25 times between preseason, the regular season, and the British Columbia Rugby Union Women's Premier League playoffs. Compared to the Midwest Conference Champion, which has won all nine of its matches this competitive season, Zern's team has equipped itself for a run at back-to-back titles and then some.

"The BCRU does an exceptional job preparing our players physically, mentally, and emotionally," Zern said. "We have a lot of competitive minutes against quality teams. We've been put under a lot of pressure already, so hopefully we'll be able to face that adversity."

Seattle's record is not perfect like North Shore's, but several capped Eagles and additional talent from across the country have joined Saracens for the opportunity to play high-level rugby. The result: two consecutive DI Final campaigns.

The team's goals for the season were for the premier team to win the BCRU Provincial Championship - it did - and for the elite team to reach the Premier Final - it lost in the Semifinal. The third goal was to compete in the USA Rugby Club Playoffs, where the Saracens have been successful thus far, beating Santa Monica in the Quarterfinals and Denver Black Ice a day later in Tucson, Ariz.

"I think the word is out that a good pathway for some players is to come play in Seattle," Zern said. "We play two to three times as many games as the WPL, so that factors in.

"Considering the number of games that we have played our team is extremely healthy. A lot of that is due to our fantastic physios, Dr. Kalvin Kwan and Dr. Darci Davis, who have been with us at every training and almost every game. A few bumps and bruises [going into the weekend], but pretty darn healthy."

North Shore has rallied around the team dynamic this season, overcoming the loss of Eagle scrum half Jenny Lui and a few influential forwards. Another hill to climb was the Pittsburgh Quarterfinal matchup with Beantown, the team that sent Chicago home in the same playoff game last season.

"It was déjà vu - same round, same team - except, this time, we had a chip on our shoulder and something to prove," North Shore coach and captain Christiane Pheil, who will shuttle north to Greeley following Saturday's Final, said. "Last year we played a solid game of defense, but it was just that. We never took advantage of our opportunities on attack and Beantown wore us down. You can only play strong defense for so many minutes, and with no shift in the momentum, they were able to get the job done."

Armed with lessons learned from the 2015 encounter and others from the current season, Chicago went about its business from the get-go at Founders Field. Wing Gabrielle Whittinghill recorded nine of her team's 19 first-half points with a try and two conversions for a 19-3 lead, eventually a 29-8 final. The attack was spread across the pitch, however, with wing Yuliana Garcia also dotting down and forwards Colleen Canniff, Brittany Klimek, and Nobuku Takaki crossing the line.

North Shore turned Raleigh Venom's slender Semifinal lead into a win of its own on a mud-soaked pitch the following day, finalizing its Championship credentials.

"This year, we spent a lot of time focused on our attack and on allowing players to be creative within a strong system," Pheil said. "It has allowed us to adapt to adversity - weather, injuries, etc. - without our system breaking down. It has also unified the team on the field.

"Every try scored takes 15 players on the field. We didn't have that ability last year."

Pheil likened North Shore's on-field mentality to that of a team playing the Olympic sport of rugby sevens, shifting responsibility and ensuring every player can step into every role. In summation, "players play outside of the number on their back." It will come in handy against a Seattle team with threats from No. 1 to No. 23.

Because the teams are going into Saturday's Final relatively blind, preparations focus mainly on what can be controlled. For North Shore, it is about continuing the trend of cohesiveness in the face of adversity and playing the kind of rugby that brings success as well as enjoyment for viewers.

"We have been a bit of an underdog this season, and that has fueled our fire," Pheil said of the club's motto, 'Put on a show.' "We wanted our team goal to be outcome-based, but wanted it to stay within the realm of our control. 'Put on a show' is the phrase that we coined early on this season to relate to the goal of reaching our potential when it matters most.

"We wanted to play our best at playoffs, and we did. Now we want to do the same at nationals. When people watch the championship game and say, 'Wow, this is really great rugby!' That's what we want."

North Shore's 'underdog' tag may stick for a few more hours until the whistle blows at 5 p.m. MT Saturday, with Seattle comfortable - and confident - in its systems against any opponent.

"We heard through the grape vine that they have a very good forward pack that is mobile, aggressive, and physical," Zern said. "Haven't heard much about the back line, so I'm hopeful we'll be able to exploit that somewhat. We shall see. We follow a pretty specific pattern of play, and it really depends on if teams can match us or not, frankly."

The Women's Division II Final between Life West Gladiatrix and title-holder Wisconsin opens play at the USA Rugby Club National Championships in Glendale Saturday, with the Division I Final following at 5 p.m. MT. Tickets are still available for both days of competition at Infinity Park, while all five Championship matches will be streamed live on The Rugby Channel.