Gross Reflects on Successful WPL, Division I Fall Seasons
Luke Gross, Glendale’s Director of Amateur Rugby, can’t help but be proud of the effort, growth, and potential that his Women’s Elite and Division I teams showed this Fall.
Photo by Seth McConnell
The resiliency that the Merlins exhibited was on display after their first match of the season. After dropping their first match 31-22 to the Surfers, Glendale’s Elite Women’s side rattled off a three-game winning streak and changed the direction of their season. Their willingness to work is one of the things that made Luke Gross, the head coach of the Elite Women’s side and Glendale’s Director of Amateur Rugby, extremely proud of his team.
“As a team and as a staff, we’ve grown quite well. We continually got better every game. There’s always little step backs as you go forward, but I think we responded very well to those matches where we didn’t play to our performance as the next game we had a really solid performance. It was good to see the ladies bounce back like that.”
The women’s program consisted of a mix of new and old players after former head coach Kit Ruiz left the club in 2017. Gross was overall very pleased with the way that his team came together as the season progressed.
“It was a new mix of players from last year with Kit being the coach. Some of the players had retired at the end of the season. We had some new blood come in who performed really well, and with some of the established players we continually saw improvement each game. I am very pleased with how the team gelled and saw how we became more of a team as the season progressed.”
Their three-game win streak consisted of a 46-14 win over Oregon Sports Union, a 48-21 win over the Berkley All-Blues and a 45-0 victory over the Chicago North Shore in Chicago. It was at the match in Chicago that Gross really began to see the potential in his team.
“There are two matches where I felt that we were just scratching the surface of where we could actually be, and one of them was against Chicago North Shore in Chicago,” Gross said of his team’s shutout victory. “I know that Chicago didn’t have a great season, but they are a very athletic team and are just missing a couple of pieces. I think they could be a real contender in a lot of ways. We held them to zero points at their place.”
After suffering their second loss of the season to Lindenwood University and fighting their way to a draw in their second go-around against the Surfers, the Merlins bounced back with a four-game win streak. It was after they defeated the All Blues for the second time of the season that Gross once again really saw the potential of his team.
“The Berkeley match in Berkeley, it was just a grind,” Gross said. “It was an absolute grind. We played defense for about 75 percent of the match and the girls never stopped.”
The Merlins rode that four-game win streak all the way into the WPL Championship in Atlanta, Georgia for a third match with the Surfers. The Surfers used a physical goal line stand to hang on for a 34-28 victory and the Merlins walked off the pitch as the runner-ups.
“I haven’t completely, fully processed it,” Gross said after a long pause. “I’m very disappointed as the ladies are. We all were a bit numb at the end of that. We had a lot of disappointment in it. I felt we had it because we were peaking when we were supposed to peak, and we were right where we should have been. I tell you what, San Diego, that goal line stand was incredible. They are hard nosed. The heart that they put out there, hats off to them.”
While the season may not have ended the way that the Merlins had wanted, a disappointing moment certainly doesn’t equate to a disappointing season, and Gross recognized the stellar performances by both individuals and the team as a whole that were necessary to reach that point in the season.
The Merlins, lead by their captain Sarah Chobot, received big performances from Samantha Luther, Maya Learned, Nichole Wanamaker, Hannah Stolba and Rachel Ehrecke among many others on their way to the WPL Championship.
“We’re blessed that our talent is very spread,” Gross said. “These are just a few of the ladies. Overall it’s such a team sport that none of these young ladies would have shined if it wasn’t for everyone else doing their job.”
Photo by Seth McConnell
With Women’s DI head coach Angie Cranmore not being able to coach the team during the fall season, Tim Gilligan stepped in and kept her seat warm until she could return in the spring. As a result, Gross pooled the WPL and DI teams together for about half the practices two times a week to help them get in some valuable work.
“Our DI is a good mix,” Gross said. “Our DI coach wasn’t available in the fall so we pulled them into the WPL trainings and we would split when we would do team stuff. We had a fill-in coach, Tim Gilligan, who took charge of it and did a tremendous job. He knew that Angie would be back in the Spring, but Serg did a tremendous job with the ladies. The DI ladies worked their butts off. We always struggle with the Utah matches. This year, the ladies put their bodies on the line and while we didn’t get the results that we wanted, you can just see it. The desire is there, the attitude is there, we just have to keep working on the skill side of things and it will come.”
Mixing in the DI players with the WPL players gave them the unique opportunity to develop their skills at an accelerated pace. This competitive environment helped morph them into better rugby players while also helping the WPL team sharpen up their skills at the same time.
“You go into a grill with some international players and some high level WPL players and it’s amazing,” Gross said. “Your skill level actually goes up because everything is at a faster pace and it increases how they look at things, how they move. Everything is just faster and you can see the performance continuously improve.”
Gross relied heavily on his experienced assistant coaches Mose Timoteo and Jamie Burke to run parts of the training sessions so he could observe his team as a whole.
“It was a good layout and I actually really liked it because you got to see everybody,” Gross said. “I am very blessed at Glendale because I had Mose Timoteo and Jamie Burke as my assistant coaches where I can actually step back, watch and actually see what’s going on.”
This ability allowed him to find some players that turned into valuable additions to the WPL side that he might not have found if he was wrapped up in running training sessions as well.
The Glendale Merlins are in good hands with Gross, and although the season didn’t end the way that they envisioned, you can bet that they are going to use that bad taste in their mouth to fuel them moving forward.
“Yeah, it will be,” Gross said of the loss being used as fuel. “We will use it.”