Author: Jackie Finlan
The National Club Championship is an intense experience in and of itself, but throw in all the distractions – travel, Glendale’s elevation, media, stadium – and a friendly contingent can go a long way. That’s what Raleigh and Charlotte have in each other. Both from North Carolina, the DI and DII finalists bloom in the pride of representing their home but also share a kinship that extends beyond this singular trip to Glendale.
The teams are located approximately two hours from each other and they serve as their best in-state competition.
“Our point differential during the regular season was almost 500 points, so we typically try to schedule games with Raleigh. …That’s good for us to see before playoffs,” Charlotte captain Amanda Watkins said.
“Charlotte has always been of higher caliber in providing a facility, a men’s side and elite players with the capability and talent to play select side,” Raleigh veteran T Fletcher said.
The ranks themselves have a lot of familiarity, with players coming out of the same colleges and competing on representative teams together. The USA South team traveling to Mexico for the RAN 10s includes five Raleigh and Charlotte players and an assistant coach from the Venom. The players include Fletcher and Watkins, who are also Appalachian State alumnae. The former teammates reminisce fondly of their early collegiate careers together and speak glowingly of each other’s achievements.
“This year North Carolina really feels like a powerhouse, and that is really cool,” Watkins said. “It’s nice that there isn’t just one club that’s doing well or just one place that people are flooding to. It’s starting to spread a little more widely across the South.”
Both teams endured incredibly tough outings at the eastern regional championships in Obetz, Ohio. In the quarterfinals, Charlotte established the first lead over Harrisburg through a Kala Clanton try and remained in front for all but approximately 10 minutes. Harrisburg flanker Nikki Snyder proved particularly difficult to contain, scoring all four of the Harlots’ tries. Backs Elizabeth Ravaioli, Erin Satterfield and Watkins finished off Charlotte’s tries, while flyhalf Maddie Clark kicked the extras and a penalty in the 31-26 win.
The semifinal against Providence was even more tense. After 55 minutes, only two players – Charlotte’s Satterfield and Clanton – had crossed the try line, and Clark’s conversions gave the Southern side a 14-0 lead as the fourth quarter approached. Providence then answered with two tries of its own (14-12) and then lined up an off-center penalty kick. The first attempt failed – but, Charlotte rushed the kicker, and the second attempt fell over, 15-14 to Providence. Charlotte went back to work and at the death, fullback Watkins stepped the goal-line defense for the game-winning try, 19-15.
“Our past four matches, [the decision’s] been within a try,” Watkins included the Southern Championship final four matches. “So going from winning most games by 100 points in the regular season to winning by a try has definitely been a really good mental challenge for us. It’s been so much fun. Rugby, when it’s actually rugby and so competitive, is so much fun. I’ve just really enjoyed the experience and the having fun piece of it.”
The way the schedule worked out, Raleigh wasn’t able to watch much of Charlotte’s games in Ohio, but the DII side made a point of returning to the pitch after hotel cool-downs to support the Venom, and Raleigh felt it.
The DI quarterfinal between Raleigh and Philadelphia was a rematch of the Mid-Atlantic championship and the teams’ fourth time playing each other that season. Raleigh scored its 24 points by the 41st minute (Shawn Gatewood 2T, Sarah Rosche T, Chelsea Garber T, 2C) and it was enough to keep Philly’s fourth-quarter push at bay in the 24-15 decision.
In the Sunday semifinal, Raleigh exerted pressure quickly, scoring five tries by the 50th minute for a 29-7 lead over Boston. During the final 10 minutes of the match, Boston launched a furious attack, sending three players into the try zone and adding three Stacey Markovic conversions for the 29-28 scoreline.
“It came down to the last play, the last seconds of the game. Luckily the clock ran out,” Fletcher winced. “Coming down to the wire like that … we got a little complacent at times, and we can’t do that in the final.”
Raleigh knows what awaits in the DI Club National Championship final: Life West and a chance for redemption.
“We’ve been told we’re the underdog, but in my opinion, this is a good place to be,” Fletcher said. “This is a business trip. We’re going all the way out west to play in the DI National Championship for the second year in a row because we’ve earned that. We’re ready for the dog fight and will not roll over for anyone.”
“This is the first time in Charlotte’s 47-year history that any team, men or women, has made it to [the national final],” Watkins said. “There’s been a ton of support, especially from the old boys who helped start the club. It’s really amped up that family feel that we don’t necessarily always have. Clearly, we are kind of nervous because this is a different situation that we haven’t been in before. … There’s a level of anxiety there, but at the same time there’s excitement and readiness.”
Raleigh’s hometown support has manifested in the men’s team donating the remainder of its funds to the Venom, old boys and old girls contributing financially, and viewing parties at places like the Hibernian Pub, a continued sponsor, that will donate proceeds back to the team. Meanwhile Raleigh’s and Charlotte’s travel coordinators have been working hard to book the same flights, hotels and restaurants in Colorado, so the teams can feed off each other’s support.
“Since we’ve been there before, [we’ll do] whatever we can do to continue that camaraderie with Charlotte and help put their nerves at ease,” Fletcher said.
“One thing that is really key to both of our clubs is the diversity of the sport and how it really attracts different people,” Watkins said of a deeper connection with Raleigh. “Yes, this is the most important game we’re going to play – we’ve been working toward it for 10 months now – but it’s still just a game. It’s about the individuals and, in my opinion, the power of showing young women, regardless of what your body looks like or feels like, that you’re safe to express yourself in those areas. That message transcends the game.”
Raleigh has designed and circulated diversity t-shirts that will be on display in Glendale, and they’re adorned with the tagline #WhyIPlay.
“Rugby is already at a disadvantage here in the U.S. and we’re just trying to grow the sport and support each other as best we can,” Fletcher said. “We’re fortunate to have a great relationship with Charlotte. … We’ve all earned the right to play rugby.”
Tune into FloRugby this Saturday, June 2 to watch the DII Club National Championship between Charlotte and St. Louis at 3 p.m. Mountain, an the DI Club National Championship between Raleigh and Life West at 5 p.m. Mountain.