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Columbia County fell in the cup semi-final last Saturday, but will get the chance to play for third place against Battle Ground on Saturday, May 17 at 9 a.m.

by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Covered in grass and mud, the Columbia County Crusaders pose together after falling to Beaverton in the semifinal of the state rugby championships. The Crusaders will play next weekend for third place.The Columbia County Crusaders' might have fallen in the semifinal of the state tournament on Saturday, but in the grand scheme of things, this season has been a major success.

This year, the both divisions of the girls' rugby league were combined into one “super-league” with 12 teams and the former second-division Crusaders won six of their eight games, with the only two losses coming against the second and fourth teams in the standings.

“To come from division two and end up in the top four in the entire league is pretty amazing for us,” said Ashley Baggett, the team's head coach that has worked to rebuild the program over the last two years. “That's attributed to a majority of the girls coming back and getting seasoned players back and building team morale and a culture where everyone's welcome and there's a place for everyone on our team.”

Saturday's loss, in which the Crusaders fell 49-20, was close for much of the first half. The Lady Barbarians of Beaverton took a 14-5 lead early on, but a long breakaway from Kayleigh Horecky ended in a pitch to her older sister Victoria, who cut back and ran in for the try.

As the match went on, just as Baggett had warned against in the days prior to the cup semifinal, the superior size and experience of Beaverton began to wear the Crusaders down. Not only was Beaverton hard to bring down to the ground, they were also adept at passing out of a tackle and getting to the edge where their speedy wing players were next to impossible to catch.

For Baggett, the only option was to reach the ball carrier before they found open space.

“The biggest thing for us was to launch on defense, before they even got a running start, and catch them on their back foot so that they didn't really have a chance to gain any momentum,” said Baggett. “When we did do it, it worked really well.”

The Barbarians were just as tough on defense. Several times both Kayleigh and Victoria Horecky were able to break away, but for the most part the Crusaders found their big guns bottled up. Even when Columbia County was able to jump on loose balls or rebound from a big tackle, it was difficult to search out enough space to take advantage of their speed.

“It's really tough to be on a field of 29 other girls other than the ball carrier and find the gaps, so more likely than not you're going to find defenders in front of you,” Baggett said. “It's a matter of finding the cracks, and that's something a lot of the girls do well.”

Columbia County scored twice more in the second half, but wasn't able to slow Beaverton down the stretch, sending the Barbarians to the cup final against top-seeded Grant.

The Crusaders will play for third place at Delta Park on Saturday, May 17 at 9 a.m., taking on a Battle Ground team that came from behind to beat Columba County 34-26 on April 19.

“We've had pretty much the same goals offensively and defensively the whole season, and so we're just going to continue to hone those skills and prepare for the game against Battle Ground,” said Baggett.

Correction: The un-named player in last week's article was Shay Jewell.

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