Club 7s Preview: San Diego look to repeat in the Women’s Bracket

After an action-packed summer of women’s club sevens, it all culminates this weekend in Kansas City, Mo. at the 2019 USA Rugby Club 7s National Championship. All but one team from last year’s field returns to compete for the cup. The San Diego Surfers will look to defend their crown against a bevy of heavy hitters with their eyes on the prize.

If you can’t attend the national tournament this weekend at Swope Soccer Village in Kansas City, Mo., the entirety of the event will be broadcasted live on FloRugby.

Pool A – San Diego Surfers, Atlanta Harlequins, NOVA, ARPTC White

After winning its third championship last year, the San Diego Surfers’ approach was not to build off what they accomplished but to grow as a club. San Diego returns eight players to the squad and welcomes four new athletes into the fold.

The Surfers are loaded with firepower from Eagles Alena Olsen, Tia Blythe, Megan Foster, and Hunter Griendling. Olsen shined last year with the Surfers and then broke out in Glendale at the USA Women’s Sevens. Griendling serves at the captain this season and is a productive field general on the pitch. Joining them fresh off the WPL All-Star game, Megan Foster brings her big boot to Nationals. Players like Jaime Albarelli, Mandy Wagner, Kyla Letoi, Elizabeth Trujillo, and S’rob Oberman-Breindel will only complement the talent on the team.

Coach Kate Zachary said that the strength of the team is the variety of play they can show. “With the different personnel this year, we have a lot of variety. We have height, power runners, and also a lot of flair. With all of those types of players, the gameplan can change from game to game to reflect what we expect from the opposition.”

San Diego knows it has a target on its back. “It’s going to come down to us focusing on what we need to do,” Zachary said. “It’s going to be a lot of inward looking: what is our strongest asset, what do our strongest players offer, and how do we use that to beat a team. It’s one game at a time and focusing on what we need to do as a team to win the game.”

Joining San Diego in Pool A is the Atlanta Harlequins. 2019 marks the fifth appearance to Nationals for the South #1 seed with their best finish coming in 2013 when it advanced to the semifinals. The team is looking best its record last year and advance farther than its quarterfinal loss to Scion.

To that goal, almost every player on the roster is playing in the WPL with Kaitlyn Broughton, Pat Neder, and Cortney Kuehl also being capped with the Eagles. The Harlequins will rely on Chi Chi Chukwueke, Kuehl, Broughton, Lara Gartner, Mo Compito, and Cyndi Campbell to provide the spark on offense, but it’s Meredith “Marcel” Nelson and Kimberly Semiglia who bring the grit to the team.

“We have a lot of speed, experience, and skill,” coach Ros Chou said. “We have a lot of great players with different skill sets, so it’s a pretty well-rounded group… [In order to win,] we have to challenge for possession at each opportunity to keep the ball and control the matches. When on defense, we have to know what kind of defense to play when and find ways to turn the ball over.”

As the only other team who has qualified for each women’s Nationals, Northern Virginia is a fixture at the tournament. After winning the Club 15s National Championship earlier this year, NOVA hopes to surprise in Pool A and advance to the cup round on Sunday.

Coach Nancy Fitz brings a mix of upstarts and veterans to Kansas City. “We have five players who are 21 or under and are excited to see the new talent mesh with our experienced players.” Brianna Kim, Ariel Johnson, Kay Onyekwere, Emma Auld participated in the women’s All-Star weekend while Ubaida Ahmed joins the team after playing with the USA U20s on their tour last month.

Fitz is confident in her squad saying, “We need to execute the basics in attack, defense, set pieces, and avoid unforced errors.  We also need to take advantage of the opportunities we get and convert those opportunities into tries.”

The final team in Pool A is the American Rugby Pro Training Center White side. Helmed by Hannah Field, ARPTC White earned the second seed in the Red River. The White side came in second in the first qualifier and beat its Blue counterparts at the Hell or Highwater 7s in Spring, Texas.

Pool B – Scion Sirens, Rocky Mountain Magic, Washington Athletic Club, Santa Barbara Academy

Three years removed from winning it all in 2016, the Scion Sirens are back in their fifth appearance at Nationals. After earning the #1 seed in the Mid-Atlantic and second seed overall, Scion sits atop Pool B as the team to beat in its group.

Coach Joanne Liu constantly challenges her players to prepare them for Nationals. “We train the brains of our athletes and that mental challenge motivates them to train their bodies harder than they ever would if it were coach driven. They were essentially self-trained for the bulk of the season due to prior commitments of their coaches and collectively deserve all the credit for our successes so far this season and hopefully at Nationals.”

Scion is full of playmakers and guided by captains Maggie Myles and Kiki Morgan who set examples on both sides of the ball. On offense, Emily Fulbrook and Nikki Snyder use their power and speed to score while Jade McGrath and Dana Meschisi are there at every tackle to lay the big hit. Newcomer Camille Johnson from Dartmouth continues to grow in her versatility and confidence on the field playing pretty much every position for the Sirens.

The Rocky Mountain Magic is looking to topple the giants in pool play on Saturday. The Magic’s first year of competition was last season where it ultimately placed in eighth place. With players hailing from the Glendale Merlins’ D1 and WPL squads, Denver Black Ice, and Lindenwood, the squad from the Frontier is looking to make an impact at Nationals.

Each athlete on the team fulfills a role and coach Sam Enari believes his side is a “balanced and consistent team ready to work towards a singular purpose… Our team is fun to be around and exciting to watch. Our style will vary depending on the opponent and throughout the game.  You can be sure to see some surprises this weekend.”

The surprises come from the likes of the never give up attitude of Kacy Lorder, the leadership of Nichole Wanamaker and Kristin Kaderabek, the two-way power of JT Wypych and Alli Hale, the unsung heroics of Selena Tuilaepa and Alaina Enari, the communication and skill of Frankie Beller and Rachel Ehrecke, and the calming influence of captain fantastic Jess Dombrowski.

As the Pacific North #3 seed and tenth overall, the Washington Athletic Club makes its second appearance in as many years at Nationals in 2019. The WAC is not the new kid on the block anymore and is ready to make their mark in Kansas City.

“We like to play a very open style allowing players to make decisions on offense as long as they are working in threes,” coach Pate Tui said. “We need to play as a team and stay connected with everything we do both on offense and defense. It’s going to be tough but I believe we can do it.”

In order to advance to Day Two, Eagle Jeanine Duncan Detiveaux and Stefani Vicino-Bergerhouse will need to get the ball rolling on offense while Sammy Haden and Megan Sanders deliver the blows on the defense.

Lastly, the Santa Barbara Rugby Academy makes its first appearance at Nationals as the 16th overall seed from the Pacific South. For a team that was established in 2017, Santa Barbara boasts an impressive stable of talent from southern California.

Capped Eagles Lauren Thunen and Kelly Griffin bring National team experience to young side while captain Kim Law, Tiana Kawaihoa-Marquez, and Shaneisha “Nemo” Wofford hail from the WPL. Other playmakers include sweeper Joanne Absher, who spent the last year in New Zealand honing her defense and UCLA’s Mikaela Hassenzahl, who outplays her weight class.

“Our team is comprised athletes from a huge range of experience from Eagles to athletes who have never had a rugby coach before,” Kelly Griffin said. “What bonds us together is a commitment to enjoying hard work and striving to improve. We look to use the space on the field and move the ball, but are not afraid to take on the contact area.”

Pool C – Berkeley All Blues, New York Rugby Club, Phoenix 7s, DC Furies

The experienced Berkeley All Blues are back as the third seed overall after winning the Pacific South this summer. The All Blues earned the cup in 2011 and 2013 but unfortunately came in sixth in 2018. In its eighth appearance, the mantra from coach Irene Gardner is simple, “Defend as a team. Execute on offense. Play as a team.”

The 2019 squad is chock full of talent from its WPL side. Eagles Bulou Mataitoga, Evan Hoese, and Shelby Lin lead by example and WPL All-Stars Tyra Norlander and Serena Liu continue to exhibit the poise and composure needed on the pitch.

Another team that advanced to the cup round last year was the New York Rugby Club. The Northeast #1 seed dominated its regional competition to earn its third consecutive qualification to Nationals.

New York’s offensive weapons include WPL standouts like Kristen Siano, Misha Green, Shamira Robles, Eagle and top try-scorer Sarah Levy, and Jenn Salomon, who played for Mexico 7s. Matilda Kocaj, Tiyanna Hooker, and Misha Green are the leaders on defense while Abigael Yotts is the glue of the team on and off the pitch. With only five players returning from last year, the infusion of new talent has picked up the play of the team looking to make an impact at Nationals.

Coach Ryszard Chadwick has created an atmosphere for his players to compete at the highest level. “We have a young, creative team and we enjoy playing at a high-tempo. Our defense is structured, but our offense is creative and fluid… To win in Kansas City, we need to execute our systems, embrace the environment and have fun.”

Making its third appearance out of the last four years, Phoenix 7s qualified as the South #2 seed and eleventh overall. Phoenix finished in tenth place in 2018 but hopes to rise from the ashes and shock Pool C on Saturday.

Playing a very open and free style, coach Eyal Hakim employs a system that allows for creativity on offense. Leading the charge for the club is a combination of Canadian national player Magali Harvey and Lindenwood and the USA U20s member Morgan Freeman.

The last side in Pool C is the DC Furies. New coach Matthew Willian came on board this summer to give the team a fresh perspective and new life. Knowing that they are underdogs going to this weekend, “We want to be ultra-competitive and play DC Furies rugby. It means developing and trying things and hopefully, that means we will be competitive. You never know, we might be able to take one of the big dogs out.”

“Statistically, we are very much the underdog,” Willian continued. “This team isn’t blessed with having standout players, it’s a team that works very hard for each other. We create lots of opportunities, very dogged it our approach. We play a very expansive style of 7s and we try our best to play with a creative, imaginative flair.”

“To win it, we would have to do something absolutely miraculous, but as a club, we have set our target of what we want to do and hopefully we will be able to achieve that.”

Pool D – ARPTC Blue, Life West Gladiatrix, Chicago Lions, Boston WRFC

In the final group, ARPTC Blue has its focus set on getting back to the cup final and seizing another championship. The ARPTC is the first National Development Academy for women in the USA with the goal of developing players for the next level. This is the Blue side’s fifth year of qualification out of the Red River.

Coach and academy founder Jules McCoy has created a system and gameplan that emphasizes cohesiveness and the ability to strike from anywhere on the pitch. To accomplish the task, McCoy’s pace players consist of Kelli Smith, Summer Jones, Jazz Gray, and Rachel Laquebetua. On defense, Kelli Smith and Lindsey Mayo are fast on their feet and quick to recover. Lastly, Eagle Jess Wooden brings experience and leadership to the squad.

In McCoy’s own words, her team’s play is “creative and connected, unstructured by design.” With hopes of hoisting the cup on Sunday, McCoy knows the only way to achieve it is to “make our one on one tackles and play ‘4’ each other.”

The biggest threat to ARPTC in Pool D is Life West. After finishing in third place the last two years, Director of Rugby Adriaan Ferris and his coaching staff have taken the lessons learned and applied them to this year’s club.

“We were close the last two years and we have taken lessons from the experience in losing in the semifinals,” Ferris said. “We’ve understood that we need to be mentally stronger and apply ourselves under pressure. We’ve grown as a program and we know this is another opportunity. We need to do the job on Day One and assess where we are on Saturday night. We are confident that the ladies have really hard this year.”

The Gladiatrix have probably the most experience on the national and international level than any other club in this year’s competition. Kelsi Stockert, Nikka Kenyon, Sarah Parsons, Bitsy Cairns, Amy Naber-Bonte, Ffion Lewis, Neariah Persinger, Nicole Strasko, and Jennifer Sever have all been capped either on the 7s and 15s side.

The gameplan for Life West is freedom and open play. “They are a very fluid team when we need to be,” Ferris said. “They certainly have the ability to open the game up. We have a number of strike runners that can do that and we want to make sure we are working hard at the set piece, the breakdown, and use the ball. When we use the ball on attack, we can be very effective.”

The Chicago Lions are making their sixth appearance at Nationals this season as the Midwest #1 and 12th overall. The Lions were disappointed with their 13th place finish in 2018, but coach Jeremy Nash has his team prepared for a run at the cup.

Sporting several WPL players and a few that have been to Eagles camp on his roster, Nash describes his team as an “intelligent rugby team that defends with ferocity and attacks with efficiency.” The key to the Lions is executing on defense. If Chicago can limit mistakes and play solid defense, they can compete with anyone.

The final team in the tournament is the Boston Women’s Rugby Football Club. Founded in 1976, Boston has qualified four out of the last five years but historically hasn’t had much luck. The Northeast club is banking on breaking the cycle this year with a new strategy and intensity.

Isabel Haber is the spark on offense using her speed and elusiveness to lead the club in tries this summer. Leadership on the field comes from Gravy Van Eerde and Paige Stathopoulos, while your defensive monsters are Marge Reiss and Cathy Ordile, who are powerful and precise in the tackle area with their textbook chop tackles.

“We’ve always taken pride in being a gritty, hard working side and that remains true,” captain Deanna Nash said. “This year, we’ve put a lot of focus on refining our style to efficiently utilize possession and become a more effective 7s side defensively as well.”