Berkeley winning the Women’s Club 7s Championship wasn’t the only story out of the weekend; in fact, the tournament had a little bit of everything drama wise: There were completely new 7s teams that made their nationals debut; veteran sides folded under the pressure; and conversely, there were teams that realized their times to peak.
ORSU Shakes Up the Field
When mistakes start to compound or fatigue becomes a factor, 7s games can degenerate with too much contact. But ORSU, which played its first competitive 7s season and took the third seed out of the Pacific Coast to nationals, perpetuated a contact-heavy game plan.
But coach Charles Sanderson insisted that the strategy wasn’t a conscious effort to throw teams off or be different.
“Our approach all summer has been to focus on our strengths and be true to ourselves, so our contact-driven style was a product of our personnel,” Sanderson said. “It might not look like what the rest of the country is playing, but it felt like the best approach for us and a style that was really, really fun to play.”
ORSU had their successes, defeating the Boston Belles and Philadelphia in pool play, and (not unexpectedly) losing to 2012 champions San Diego. It was enough for the Oregon side to qualify for the Cup quarterfinals – an outcome that few would have predicted leading into the tournament.
“The exciting thing about the 10 weeks we spent together is that we constantly got better each and every session,” Sanderson said. “To have the opportunity to play in the Cup bracket in our first season was truly a thrill, but it was the product of so much support from people across the country. Richie Walker and CJ Hildreth were generous with their time and knowledge. The ORSU rugby club and greater rugby community in Portland, including the Portland Pigs and Portland Hunters Touch team, buoyed our efforts not only financially but also in spirit.”
Women’s 7s is still in a state where a club can focus its resources during the course of one season and qualify for nationals (not in all regions, of course). And that’s O.K., because as more teams and players are wooed by a championship experience, the more traction 7s will gain.
“Over the weekend, we met so many wonderful people,” Sanderson said. “I was constantly touched by the warmth, spirit and camaraderie exhibited by other clubs, officials, referees and our hosts from the Pittsburgh Rugby Club. This was a really special summer for all of us; we've all grown so much – not just as players but as people, and we can't thank the extended rugby family enough for reaching out and making this a reality for us.”
Boston Belles Raise the Bowl
Winning the Bowl is no small feat; a team must go undefeated on the second day of play. However, the Boston Belles were too good of a team to not compete in the Cup bracket.
Eyebrows rose when the Northeast champion fell to ORSU and Philadelphia, the fourth and third seeds respectively out of their territories, during pool play.
“When you come to nationals, everybody is there for a reason,” Belles coach Amy Daniels said. “There is no team that is a surprising team, an underdog per se, because every team [got] there. With the game of 7s, any given day, any hour of the day, [the game] will go any team’s way. The level of competition over the past couple of years has really elevated, and it’s fantastic to see and be a part of. So there weren’t any surprises.”
But there were, some of which were positive. After dropping what were supposed to be their easier pool games, the Belles faced then-defending champ San Diego in the third round. Upsetting the odds once again, the Belles shut out the Surfers in a victory that would kick-start their four-game winning streak to the Bowl title.
“I think it’s players recognizing factors that they don’t have control over versus factors that they do have control over, and getting players to understand … how to prevent them from affecting your play,” Daniels explained the change in play. “I think trusting each other, and coming together with each other, and relying on each other allows them to overcome some of those challenges and external factors. And I think day one, [those challenges were] the anxiety and uncertainty.”
Once the Belles focused their attention away from results, they played their best rugby of the season. It helped them past Scion, friendly rival Beantown and ended with a convincing, vindicating win over Philly in the Bowl final.
“So I’m proud of them,” Daniels concluded. “They worked hard and they capitalized a lot, which is a great stepping stone into next year. And who knows what will come in the future? What we’re looking to do next year is to continue from where we left off at Nationals, and that is continuing with play, reinforcing our principles, continuing to build that … and most importantly, just to continue to have fun and growing and learning together.”
The next step, however, is the Cup division, and that’s where the Belles should be next year.
NOVA Close But No Cigar
NOVA earned the right to be the second-happiest team at nationals, getting to within striking distance of the title but falling short to Berkeley. Losing was disappointing, but NOVA captain Meganne Atkins reiterated all season that results were not the focus, that constant improvement was, and the Virginia side left just enough room to motivate the team into next summer.
“Our 15s coach, Brian Walker, told me after the [championship] that on paper we shouldn't have made it to the finals,” Atkins said. “We were out-matched in speed and size all over the field, but the team played with so much heart over the course of the tournament, and that just doesn't show up on paper.”
That determination was tested early, as NOVA kicked off its campaign with a 12-10 win over rival Atlanta, followed by respectable victories against Seattle and Detroit.
“Pool play was not easy for us, but honestly that's the way we like it,” Atkins said. “Sometimes you can get a false sense of security when you just walk through teams on day one.”
That mental fortitude came in handy during the Cup semifinals against San Diego, the measuring stick. The game was forced into overtime, but it didn’t take long for NOVA to break the tie and win 10-5.
“The overtime win against San Diego felt great,” Atkins said. “I have a ton of respect for their team and Richie [Walker]. We knew it would be a really tough game, but it is also nice to get to play the defending national champs and come out with a win. I think the composure of the team in that situation can be attributed to Beth Black and Lauren Hoeck, who bring a ton of leadership and experience.”
The aforementioned are former 7s Eagles and their presence was vital for the final against Berkeley, which also had its share of Eagles in Irene Gardner and Erin Overcash.
“We were not intimidated to play Berkeley in the final,” Atkins clarified. “Honestly we had a game plan for each of the teams we played and prepared exactly the same way we did for a pool game as we did for the final. We came out fired up ready to play, and we got a quick try, but we did not want to let up.”
Newcomer Sharlyn Carter dotted down that first quick try, but that lead didn’t last very long, as NOVA became their own worst enemy and Berkeley started to pull away.
“Again, we were really pushing the tempo of the game,” Atkins explained, “but then we made some mistakes, [and] you can't make mistakes and not expect a team in a National Championship game to capitalize on them. Berkeley did just that.”
Berkeley was more sound and deserved the title, but as Atkins reflected on the season as a whole, she had little cause for regret.
“I think NOVA did an outstanding job this entire season,” says Atkins. “I think as individuals the players on the team exceeded my expectations. From where we were eight weeks ago to this weekend, players have really improved as individuals and as part of the team unit. We only had six returning players from last year, and the others had just graduated from school and one player started playing last year. That is not a ton of experience, but that is part of NOVA's team culture; we are committed to developing players.”
While Atkins is eager to see how this year’s championship affects the growth of NOVA’s depth, she doesn’t deny the lure of seeking redemption for medals nearly won.
“I am taking my second place medal and putting [it in] my kit bag for motivation to work twice as hard for next year,” Atkins promised.
And we look forward to it.