2011 marks the Women's Club 7s Championship's first year of official sanction, but as territorial championships loom, it's clear that the majority of the country hasn't embraced the level of commitment needed to support a true national event. The Mid-Atlantic is of course the exception and has contested territorial championships since 2004. MARFU will potentially represent one-third (four teams) of the competition, as the Midwest has recently forfeited its two seeds to nationals, and the union is the only one promising competitive teams willing to travel to San Francisco.
Even the Northeast with its relatively dense population of women's teams has taken qualifying tournaments half seriously. Only one club - Boston Belles - has attended all three qualifiers and is consequently leading the standings. The Belles is easily the most dedicated 7s team in the Northeast, and their means to player buy-in is a model for the rest of the women's clubs (save those in MARFU) across the country.
The two-year-old, 7s-only club is primarily composed of Beantown players but also counts Boston Women, Northeastern, Penn State, Colby Sawyer and Brookline High School among its feeders.
"It's not necessarily easy to find a full 10-12-player 7s side from the roster of a 15s club, as I think this year's club nationals may show," Belles president and 7s Eagle Katie Dowty reflected on the genesis of the Belles. "We wanted a club for players who were serious about learning and practicing the game of 7s, no matter what their skill level, and willing to travel cross-country if necessary to compete at 7s nationals."
Beantown currently boasts nearly 70 CIPPed players, but has trouble fielding a 7s team?
"The Boston Belles is a good option for Beantown on both the player and club levels," Belles vice captain and Beantown player Kelly Seary said. "From the player perspective, there's no pressure for any given Beantown player to play 7s, which has always been the case, but then there's also the option for those who are interested in playing competitive 7s to pursue that goal. A number of our players are pulled in many directions at different times -- from club and Women's Premier League obligations, to NRU and Women's National Team opportunities for both 7s and 15s. Having a separate club for 7s forces players to make a conscious choice about whether or not they can commit to playing 7s, not just on weekends, but at practices throughout the summer.
"From a club perspective, Beantown's focus has always been 15s and, given that, trying to develop a real 7s program within the confines of a 15s club poses certain challenges," Seary continued. "The team discussed a couple of years ago whether or not we should aim to develop a 7s program and, at that time, we agreed that we didn't have the resources (financial, administrative, coaching, etc.) to devote to 7s without possibly detracting from our 15s program. The fact that the Belles is its own entity is one of its strengths as it will (hopefully) outlast the interests and priorities of any player(s) or executive boards."
Coach Brandon Sparks motivated the team through its inaugural summer last year, but when he moved to Berkeley, Calif., this year, the Belles' worried about finding a coach with equal verve for the start-up. Beantown alum Yancy Graf has picked up the reins this year.
"Brandon meant a great deal to this club, but we have been very fortunate to have former USA 7s Eagle Yancy Graf stepping in as our coach this season," Belles captain Emily Malkin said. "Yancy provides the Belles with an incredible level of expertise and knowledge of the game of 7s. She is an elite player herself, but more importantly for the Belles, she knows how to communicate and motivate players of all abilities. She knows the commitment it takes to play rugby at the highest level and that is something she has instilled in all of us."
It's a model that could evolve in Minneapolis between the Minnesota Valkyries and Twin Cities Amazons, or in the Windy City between North Shore and Chicago Women. Even though those clubs' best players might still opt out of club 7s due to various national and territorial call-ups, regional 7s teams instills a level of dedication and competitiveness that needs to evolve in the grassroots 7s game.
"While winning a club 7s championship is of course something we have had as a long-term goal for the club," Malkin added, "the team is ultimately more driven toward simply promoting an environment where players can come and learn the game of 7s while being surrounded by teammates who are similarly committed to playing at a high level."
That team ethos has seen the Belles to the top of the NRU standings, and the Boston team will vye for the territory's top seed tomorrow at the championship in New York City.