When the West forfeited its slot to the Girls U-19 National Championship due to Colorado’s withdrawal from USA Rugby competition (opting instead for a state-based high school league), the Pacific Coast inherited the extra seed. The Kent (Wash.) Crusaders were the happy recipients of the national #8 seed, which the team earned after finishing second at the PCRFU championship, just losing out (15-13) to the Sacramento Amazons.
When excessive injury crippled Maryville, the South #1 team was forced to forfeit its seed the week before the national championships were to occur. USA Rugby filled the void with local team Lowland (Utah), a young team that competed at the PCRFU championships and finished fourth. But when the team was added to the national roster, it took over Maryville’s vacated #4 spot, instead of taking the #8 seed.
Under normal circumstances, perhaps it’s easiest to simply substitute a replacement team into the vacated seed, since weighing the strength of various territories can be a sticky situation. However, in this particular circumstance, the replacement team’s level of competitiveness was clear cut – Lowland had lost to both the Amazons and Kent at Pac Coasts, and failed to score a single point. But they were entering the national competition ahead of Kent?
This incongruity struck Kent coach Rex Norris, and he spoke to USA Rugby Competitions Committee chair Alan Sharpley days before the tournament. “First he claimed that it was a logistics issue,” Norris explained, “then he said that it was policy, and a precedent had been set. But what precedent could he be referencing? Before 2008, the National Invitational Tournament [NIT] wasn’t a USA Rugby entity.”
To Norris, the logical course of action would have been to seat Lowland as #8 and bump everyone else up a spot. Norris appealed to Divine Savior coach John Klein, who agreed with the Kent coach’s rationale. Klein had raised a similar argument in 2004 to NIT organizers, indicating the seeds didn’t reflect reality, so they were changed the night before competition.
What if Divine Savior had dropped out; would Lowland have taken the #1 seed? It’s a question Norris posed to USA Rugby. Isn’t it logical to place Lowland at #8 and bump everyone else up? These are the questions Norris asked, but USA Rugby was not changing the seeding.
What was the result? The tournament saw one of the fiercest games in the first round–like when #1 seed Divine Savior beat #8 seed Kent 10-7–and blowouts in the latter rounds.
“I’m not pouting,” Norris insisted. “We lost. There’s no doubt about it. But Divine Savior was the number one seed, and they deserved the easiest route to the final. And we didn’t get to showcase our talent in a build-up to the latter rounds.”
“Nigel Melville wasn’t at the tournament,” Norris said, “but he agreed with my argument when I did talk to him and encouraged me file a complaint.”
“The last thing I want to do, however, is detract from Sacramento accomplished,” Norris added. “They were the class of the tournament. The point is that when you watch your team work so hard all season, bend over backward fundraising to get to nationals–to have the experience tainted, it was just a bad situation.”
Norris tried to keep the controversy out of the team’s purview, but the players found USA Rugby programs printed for the event that had Kent listed as the #7 seed and Lowland as #8. Hmm …
Despite the distraction, the Kent players put in an impressive performance and convinced the nation that the team deserved to be there. In the opening round, they played the majority of the first half in DSHA’s end, using the wind to their advantage and getting the ball wide to their quick backs. Kent squandered a few opportunities to score, but scrumhalf Raechel Buoy found the try zone to put the Crusaders up 7-0 at half.
“The second half was a complete reversal,” Norris recollected. “We struggled to get out of our end, but I was really proud of the way the girls defended.” Flyhalf Kelsie Saalfeld led the defensive effort and made a number of tackles on the wing.
Divine Savior inched closer with a penalty, before Kent made a tactical error with only four minutes to go. The Crusaders received a penalty inside DSHA’s 22 meter, and instead of kicking it touch, ran the ball. The Holy Angels stole possession and sent a clearing kick to a freshman fullback, who had just been subbed into the game. Kent’s #15 attempted to return fire, but the kick was blocked and bounced right into the hands of a DSHA player, who returned the ball 60 meters for the go-ahead try and one minute to go.
“It was disappointing because we’ve been coming close all year,” Norris said. “When we lost to Sacramento [at the Pacific Coast Championship], we had missed a conversion and penalty that would have given us the win. We know we’re capable; we just couldn’t finish on some games.”
Kent went on to beat Lowland 45-0 in the consolation semis and West Carroll 17-5 for fifth place. Only U-19 Eagle Katie Humphreys had been on the team when Kent last went to Nationals in 2007, but Norris commended the players on how they handled the pressure.
“We play a tough schedule,” he explained. “We played Sacramento, Fallbrook, Fullerton, Canadian traveling squads. The last two years, we’ve gone 48-6.”
And the talent didn’t escape the scouts’ attention, including Penn State coach Pete Steinberg, who chatted up outside center Amanda Henneman (sister to Lisa), Buoy and Humphreys about their collegiate rugby futures.
“We took on some of the best teams in country,” Norris said…with a rhetorical “what if…” that seemed to linger on his mind.