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By Jackie Finlan - The Women’s Premier League (WPL) sends its entire field to the national championship, but the top-four teams and title fight will garner the bulk of attention. Don’t make the mistake of neglecting the six remaining teams, as one of the toughest seasons to date is driving teams to finish on a high note.
That sentiment holds especially true for Berkeley and Atlanta, both of which finished third in their respective conferences. The All Blues’ regular-season record improved from last year, but the 2017 5th-place team went 1-3 against Blue Conference leaders San Diego and Glendale in 2018. This fall has been about finding chemistry between a lot of new faces alternating between positions, but the pieces are fitting together after year two under head coach Theo Bennett.
In the 5th place semifinal, Berkeley will take on home team Atlanta, whose fall in terms of development resembled that of the All Blues.
(The format of the WPL playoffs gives every team a chance to at least finish 5th. The teams ranked 7th-10th play in a semifinal, with the winner with the largest winning margin to play the winner of Berkeley vs Atlanta for 5th. The All Blues vs Harlequins loser plays for 7th.)
“This is a building season for us filled with a lot of growth. Every practice and match has been a learning experience for us,” Atlanta head coach Kitt Ruiz explained. “The team has embraced new attack and defense structures, and has worked to cultivate a new team culture. … We have players that have stepped into new positions and are thriving, and old and new players are pushing each other to be better.”
Last year Atlanta went 2-6 in the regular season and improved to 4-4 in 2018. Those losses included a 17-15 decision to Beantown on opening day and a 25-24 loss to Twin Cities on the road. Had either of those games finished in Atlanta’s favor, then the Harlequins would be featuring in the championship semifinals right now.
“We are flowing well and having a lot of fun doing it,” the coach added. “All in all, it has been an exciting, competitive season.”
Both Atlanta and Berkeley know they’re on the cusp of that final four, and finishing out the year with two solid games will reaffirm their growth patterns.
“It's always fun to see what the other side of the bracket is up to. Film only tells you so much so it will be exciting to play a new team,” Ruiz looked across the future 50. “Berkeley is a powerhouse and a class program. We are excited to play them as well as rise to the occasion. We are ready for this next step in our journey!”
Still A Shot At The Plate
There’s just as much incentive to win in the 7-10 seeds. Beantown ended the regular season with a winning record, 4-3-1, but the way bonus points influenced the Red Conference standings, finished fourth. Head coach Mere Baker, who is one of three commentators for the USA Eagles vs. New Zealand game at The Rugby Weekend, has readied the team for its 5th place play-in against Chicago North Shore. The second-year squad is looking for its first win of the 2018 season, having regrouped under a new coach and rallying for its fourth- and fifth-straight games on the road.
On the other side of the bracket, it’s a 2017 repeat between ORSU and the D.C. Furies. The Jesters won last year’s nationals bout 56-7 and have returned many of the influential players who made that win happen, including Rachel Johnson, Adrienne Acosta, Te Awhina Ho Chee, Paris Hart, Claire Lundy and more. D.C. started its year with a two-point win over Twin Cities, but since then has averaged fewer than 12 points per game.
While Berkeley and Atlanta are safe, one of the bottom-four teams will be on the hook for a challenge match against Life West. The Gladiatrix want to join the WPL in 2019 and will play the last-place team for the berth.