When USA Rugby announced that it was disbanding the U23 National All Star Tournament, frustration struck well established programs like the Midwest Thunderbirds. The territory is active and dedicated to its age-grade programs, and the Midwest wasn’t keen on letting an external force dictate the future of its U23s. So, instead, the territory created a new opportunity.
“When USA Rugby announced that it was ending the NASCs, that didn’t sit well with me,” said Steve Murra, Midwest Women's U23 All Star coach. “So Roger [Riley] and I talked about options. We were going to do a domestic tour, but then we started throwing out countries.”
Wales soon topped the list of potential destinations. Riley, who is not only coach of the Winona State women but also a professor of recreation and tourism, linked up with good friend Stephen Newman. An eager, detail-oriented pointman, the Welshman had been visiting the States (and Riley) for the past 14 years and was familiar with the Thunderbirds and their caliber of play.
A 12-day tour of Wales was proposed and Newman started negotiations on his side of Atlantic; stateside, Murra and Riley worked on a budget.
“We found some great sponsors,” Murra said. “Twin Cities Amazons, Chicago North Shore, a couple of schools, and private donors who have been really nice to us. The Zons have sponsored the U23s since 1999. Usually, when I send the sponsorship e-mail every year, Kim O’Brien, who is their financial person, has a check in the mail two days later. North Shore has been helpful the last couple of years. In exchange, they’re on all the gear, and we give the kids’ information to the teams. They can address the team and basically recruit them.”
Working in his domain of expertise, Riley secured great rates for all things logistics, and the grand total worked out to $1,500 per player for the all-inclusive deal. Newman was instrumental in keeping total costs low; for instance, the team usually travels with a trainer, but that would have cost an extra $2,000. Newman was able to hook the team up with medical support in Wales.
All that remained was player selection. The staff, which also includes UW Stevens Point coach Gray Zischke, asked LAU coaches to promote the late-summer Thunderbird tour to Wales (August 13-24), and the interest skyrocketed.
“It was the most competitive camp I’ve ever had,” Murra said. “We had an LAU tournament in April in Davenport, and from there we invited 76 kids to try out for 26 spots.”
It was a good problem to have. By selection’s end, the staff named Meghan Flanigan (UNI captain), Mary Jo Reddy (Ohio State captain) and former USA U20 Eagle Jacie Vonada as captains. They’ll lead the team in three matches against club sides Pontyclun and Cardiff, and Wales' U23 developmental side (“That could be rough,” Murra said). There are six Collegiate All Americans on board; while at the opposite end of the spectrum, 18-year-old Megan Saylers will debut as the youngest player ever named to the U23 team.
Tour will be an eye-opening experience for everyone (save Vonada), and it starts at the airport tomorrow: 10 players have never flown before. When the team lands on Thursday morning (and heads straight to Stonehenge), players will also have to cope with the media attention that has already started to follow them. Murra indicated that “the locals are pumped” for their arrival.
“It’s funny. We’ve been watching their posts on Facebook, and some of the newspapers are referring to us as the American National Side,” Murra explained the buzz that their Welsh opponents are perpetuating. “On Thursday, we have a local paper meeting us for an article, and when the guy e-mailed, he was talking in terms of us as a national team. Roger says [that confusion] happens all the time; it doesn’t matter who the team is.”
To add to the drama, the Thunderbird coaches must abide Wales' sideline decorum.
“It’s odd for me, Roger and Gray,” Murra said. “The Welsh Union told us that we have to dress up [when we play Wales U23]. So we got blazers with the Midwest logos, and will wear a tie and slacks to the game. We’ll wear those outfits after our other two games, but also during the game against U23s.”
Nothing wrong with a little pressure, especially if there are loftier goals afoot. Murra and team aren't looking at this tour as one-off event with little impact; they're looking down the line, or rather, up the ranks.
“For me, I want us to win the world cup and be the best,” Murra considered the ramifications of player exposure. “And you can’t be the best if you only play within your own country. Even with my team [UNI], we can’t stay in the Midwest if we want to be the best, because there’s better competition on the West coast and elsewhere. It’d be great if college conferences, if they had all-star teams, started going overseas – or even Canada. They won the Nations Cup, and they’re at our back door. It’s key to us advancing the game.”
There are a lot of steps between the Midwest U23s going on tour and the USA winning the world cup, but it's a grassroots step that helps. It’s uncommon to see territorial teams go on tour, but as the Thunderbirds’ turnout proved, it attracts players to a higher level of play, and other coaches are acknowledging the pull.
“Bryn Chivers is currently in Cambodia but we were talking over Facebook,” Murra said of the Midwest U19 coach and former USA U20 coach. “He’s interested when he comes back to start talking about a co-tour next summer. We already have major plans for the following summer; Roger and I – we haven’t even left yet – and we’re already making plans for next year. We’re going to generate a buzz.”
Stay tuned for updates as the tour unfolds.
Midwest U23 Roster on Wales Tour
Maggie Armstrong – UW Stevens Point
Rebecca Brown – Northern Iowa
Rebecca Underwood Cobb Brown – Northern Iowa
Talia Carasquillo – Northern Iowa
Meghan Flanigan* – Northern Iowa
Emily Gazella – UW Eau Claire
Mariah Hinton – Northern Iowa
Grace Hovde* – UW Madison
Katana Howard** – Minnesota
Kourtney Kavajecz – Winona State
Mel Krug* – Minnesota
Amber Kutnik – Wayne State
Amanda Martin – Lindenwood
Ashley Nelson* – Winona State
Crystal Nye – Northern Iowa
Tupouhau Paea – Davenport
Mary Jo Reddy – Ohio State
Megan Salyars – Northern Iowa
Debbie Stenoien* – Minnesota
Kate Stephens – St. Benedict’s
Jacie Vonada* – South Dakota State
Alycia Washington – Ohio State
Karlee West – Northern Iowa
Megan Wingert – Winona State
Justine Wypych – UW Eau Claire
*Collegiate All American
**Junior All American competed at U20 Nations Cup tour
Saturday, Aug. 17 vs. Pontyclun
Tuesday, Aug. 20 vs. Cardiff Quins
Friday, Aug. 23 vs Wales U23 Developmental