Queens of the pitch

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St. Albert women's rugby team celebrated its first provincial championship since 2009 to finish 11-4 overall after winning only one match last year

The excellent adventure from worst to first was a long road travelled for the provincial women’s rugby champions from St. Albert.

The senior women’s team was on the verge of disbandment before the startling turnaround culminated in Saturday’s cup-clinching celebration.

“I’m absolutely elated,” said a beaming Byron Elliott, head coach of the 11-4 second division champions. “I’m so happy for the girls and I’m so happy for the girls that have been around through the lean years and have now tasted success. Before I was coaching them I was their friend and I saw when they had 12 (players) out – when it was at its worst really – so it’s just really fulfilling to see them enjoying rugby again and having that success they deserve. They worked really hard for this.”

The 29-12 playoff hurrah over the Calgary Saints in the provincial final in the Cow Town was too good to be true.

“It seemed pretty surreal at first, especially coming back from last year (1-12 record). This is something we couldn’t have even dreamed about this year,” said inside-centre Krysta Florence, the women’s club captain on the St. Albert Rugby Football Club board. “It’s awesome. We have the trophy and it shows all the hard work we’ve put in.”

The guests of honour at the post-match festivities at SARFC were treated like conquering heroes.

“What really made us feel great was the reception from the men’s teams. When they came to the club later that evening the first thing most of the men – whether it was first div or second div players – said that it was a great game. They had already heard details of the game and they were talking about things they had already heard and I think that really resonated with a lot of the girls,” said eight-man Megan Lauer of the fifth provincial women’s championship in SARFC history. “It wasn’t just us that was pumped with the win. The men’s teams were really pumped about our win and they were proud of us and happy for us so when we came back (to the club) we felt like a family. We’re celebrating all together and not just individually men and women.”

Lauer is among a handful of players who contributed to the last provincial triumph for the SARFC women in 2009 with the 13-1 second-division Blues.

“This is most definitely sweeter. The one in 2009 it felt like it was a little bit anti-climactic because in that game we actually won by a forfeit,” Lauer said of the provincial final against an 11-player Lethbridge squad that lost two players to injuries and the match was called in the 19th minute with the Blues up 24-0.

“This year we really had to dig tooth and nail for this win. We were scored on right off the bat. We were down and we had to really pull together as a team,” Lauer added. “It was definitely challenging but everyone was in the right mindset and brought their A game and we just clicked. Everyone did their job and pulled through and played a great game.”

Four tries and one conversion later SARFC led 22-5 at halftime.

“After Calgary scored on us early we didn’t let it get to us. We came back and scored on them right away and after that moment we never let them get us down,” Florence said. “We were pretty nervous going into provincials just because we never played this Calgary team before and we didn’t know what their playing style was like but at the same time we never changed our style of play against who we were playing. If we’re playing our game the way we can that’s what is going to get us the win and it worked.”

Ironically, the 22-5 score at the break was the disadvantage SARFC overcame in the ERU final in Grande Prairie with 31 unanswered points to stun the hometown Sirens 36-22.

“It was a good way to keep the girls on track because 22-5 can be overturned. You’ve got to keep your heads on because that was the deficit last weekend,” said Elliott, who described the Saints’ first-half try as “dubious” in nature.

Not even overlapping yellow cards to Lauer and Brie Gray before the midway mark in the second half could stop the ladies from going the distance.

“Obviously having two people in the bin took a lot out of us but the girls soaked up a lot of pressure,” Elliott said.

Florence, 21, labelled the defensive stand as “outstanding.”

“We’ve been working on our defence a lot and it rewarded the hard work so much more in a situation like that,” Florence said.

The Saints were held to only one try, and that was just with one extra body, before SARFC returned to full strength.

“Our team just had the heart and the fitness to keep that defensive line up and that was really huge. It was a big point in the game and that’s when we said we’ve got this team,” Lauer said.

Gray, an outside-centre, ran in two tries and fullback Michelle Marler, winger McKenzie Pusch and Samantha Schulz, a powerful prop, also scored. Standoff Katie Davis, the on-field captain, kicked two conversions.

“I’m very proud of the girls. I always had faith in them. They were awesome,” said Elliott, the team’s first-year field general. “They wanted success and I guess my role was just to kind of direct them a little bit and the players bought in.”

Elliott knew this year’s team was extra special in week two of the ERU spring league, a titanic 19-17 decision against Crude/West to go 2-0 on the season.

“That’s when I first realized how much fight these girls had in them. They really had that will to win. That was a hard, physical game. The Crude/West had a big set of girls and it was a close,” Elliott recalled. “I said yeah, maybe we can do something this year because they weren’t willing to lay down.”

A resounding playoff run started with a 31-17 victory over the Strathcona Druids in Sherwood Park – SARFC led by 15 after 40 minutes and gave up only one try in the second half of the ERU semifinal – and it continued with the come-from-behind thriller in Grande Prairie before trampling the Saints.

“It took a while for everything to click for us and in the semifinal and the city final and provincials we were on our a game,” Florence said. “The city final was huge for us. It’s really hard to come back from such a deficit and it definitely boosted our confidence. There was a lot of momentum coming off that win, which was great, but in the end we still played with heart and passion to win provincials.”

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Jeff Hansen

Jeff Hansen joined the St. Albert Gazette in 1991. He writes about sports, athletes and teams from St. Albert and area.