2017 Women’s Premiere League gets underway with expanded competition

Beantown RFC and Chicago North Shore, set to compete in 2017

The Women's Premier League (WPL) built some momentum for season nine when it announced the addition of Chicago North Shore and Beantown to the competition. Divided into Blue (West) and Red (East) conferences, the 10-team league will kick off this weekend, as six teams contest their first of eight regular-season rounds.

Beantown isn't so much a new team as it is a returner. A founding member of the WPL, the Boston-area club withdrew after the 2013 season and spent the previous three years regrouping in Division 1.

"We're definitely excited for the season to get under way," Beantown head coach Kelly Seary enthused. "We only have a handful of players who have played in the WPL previously - either with Beantown back in 201[3] or with other teams before moving to Boston - so I'm sure we'll go through a bit of an adjustment period. Still, I'm confident that we'll be able to prove to ourselves and others early on that we truly belong in the WPL."

Sam Luther and Danielle McDonagh captain the team this year, and they'll lead a deep player pool - one of Beantown's biggest strengths, according to Seary. The coaching staff has also acquired Matt Cameron, who recently worked with Dartmouth's Katie Dowty, and former USA hooker and Beantown alumna Amy Heroux Skenderian. They join longtime forwards coach Annie Flavin, a 1991 Women's Rugby World Cup-winning Eagle.

Beantown will celebrate its return to the WPL at home Saturday against Atlanta. Phil Thiel is back for his sophomore season as the Harlequins' head coach and forwards specialist. Marcus Walsh has taken over as backs coach and is building on what Jake McFadden began last year. Growing skills and building confidence have been main foci thus far.

"They're a great group to work with because they're always willing to learn more and always want to truly understand what we're doing," Thiel commended the player pool. "We have an extremely hard-working group of athletes that have taken on what we did last year and added to it going into this year. I'm not one to make predictions, but I thought we were very competitive toward the end of last year, and will look to put ourselves in good positions this year by playing exciting, smart rugby, and leaning on our veteran leadership."

The Beantown vs. Atlanta match is one of two Red Conference games occurring this weekend. On Sunday, the D.C. Furies are traveling to Twin Cities for its league opener against the Amazons, the traditional leader in the eastern pool. The Minnesota side boasts consistency, having finished in the top four every year since 2010 and featuring in the final three times. Roger Bruggemeyer has been head coach since the league's inception, and he has Kim O'Brien by his side once again.

Twin Cities is the home to Women's Rugby World Cup Eagles Sylvia Braaten and Stacey Bridges, and typically those players take a rest after the quadrennial event, but Amazons is blessed with depth and fields WPL and DII teams in concurrent seasons.

The Furies have turned over its coaching staff, to an extent. Former head coach Jo Bader remains on staff as the forwards coach, and she works alongside new backs coach Mike McMillon. New head coach Scott Delaney actually led the Furies from 2003-05. When he first joined D.C., the team had gone through seven coaches in seven years, and as a result the club developed deep, strong player-centric values. When Delaney returned more than a decade later, he found a club still dedicated to those codes.

Delaney is eager to facilitate a dialectic relationship between the staff, veterans like captains Sharifa Love-Schnur and Maggie Olney, experienced players who are new to the team, and the fresh talent energizing the ranks.

"We're going to give it our best effort," Delaney looked ahead to the Twin Cities opener. "It's an opportunity to get some people on tape that we haven't seen before, and so we'll be able to evaluate what type of talent we have. The Amazons are an established team and I have full respect for them. We'll give them the best match we can."

In the Blue conference, Glendale heads to Berkeley, and the duo will play in 100-degree heat in San Jose Saturday. The Glendale Merlins (no longer "Raptors") have featured in four of the previous five finals, and are looking to avenge last year's title loss to San Diego.

"We have the whole package right now," Glendale veteran and hooker Jeanna Beard explained. "We have a large group of veterans coming back for the season, and we have lots of new blood circulating within the team."

Eagle prop Sarah Chobot is captain, and Eagle scrumhalf Jenny Lui is vice captain.

"I'm super excited for this leadership combo. You get something a little salty with something a little sweet," Beard praised.

The team will also get something a little French in Amandine Chatelier, who returns for her second season after helping her home club, Bordeaux, deep into the playoffs. Kemi Adewunmi has transferred from DI Denver Black Ice and injects athleticism and energy onto the pitch, and New York's Charley Thompson brings a no-nonsense, grind-it-out attitude to the forwards.

"And Alli Hale, who played with us last year, is really firing on all four cylinders as a dynamic, hard-hitting back triangle player," Beard commended. Hale also captained the Merlins 7s team at club 7s nationals and earned special praise from coach Mose Timoteo in advance of the team's 5-1 run.

"I'm pretty pumped with this group that we have this year," Beard summarized. "The younger players will provide a legacy for the future, and us old people who have seen some things will have another go at the national championship!"

Berkeley's player pool and coaching staff have fluctuated this season. While many of last year's All Blues have returned, the return of players like Katie Chou and USA 7s Eagle Bulou Mataitoga, and the addition of newcomers Emma Clery of Ireland and Christina Ramos will bolster the ranks. Berkeley has also hired a new coach in New Zealander Theo Bennett. He's been successful around the globe and got to work quickly after his arrival Monday. Evan Hoese, a former player and DII coach in the spring, is also an active WPL assistant coach.

"We are very excited about his rich coaching experience and dedication to both player and coach development," explained Allie Byrne, Berkeley president and 2016 co-captain. "There is a renewed energy around the fresh start that Theo brings to our club. We hope that Theo can both develop our players this fall to be competitive for the top bracket at nationals, as well as help develop our assistant coaches for long-term continuity."

The remaining four WPL teams will open their league seasons on Sept. 9-10.