It would be unfair to say that Lakewood wasn’t expected to advance to tomorrow’s Girls’ High School Championship, but it is fair to say they were a dark horse. Needless to say, their play today confirmed that they deserve a shot at the title. Lakewood started their day with a 34-26 quarterfinal win over Kent (read more), then upended Midwest rival Divine Savior 19-0 for a berth to the final against reigning champion Fallbrook.
Lakewood is no newcomer to nationals and carried with them the heartache of last year’s tournament. Lakewood drew with Kent in the first round and lost by one point on kicks. Another tight battle ensued through the first half of today's quarterfinal, and Lakewood coach Andre Bruwer used the halftime break to reinvigorate his players.
“It’s been a year working toward this and I reminded them of that at half,” Bruwer said. “’Are we going to go down again,’ I asked. And the response was what you saw out on the field.”
Lakewood ran in three consecutive tries, and although Kent ended strongly with two tries later in the game, it wasn’t enough.
That set up a semifinal with Divine Savior, a team with which Bruwer is very familiar. The South African-born coach has a tremendous amount of respect for the Wisconsin side and has learned a lot from head coach John Klein. But first he had to address his team.
“When we came off after first game, some of the girls were sluggish and I was going to change up my whole game plan,” Bruwer said. “But the psychology behind rugby is huge and I thought I would be sending a message to my players that I’ve lost confidence them. So I tried some reverse psychology on them. I told them, ‘I was going to switch it up because Divine Savior has this, this and this. But I’m not because I think you’re awesome where you are.’ That restored their confidence.”
Lakewood was fortunate enough to draw first blood as big inside center Shailah Anderson bullied her way across the line. Flyhalf Caitlin Kilbane slotted the conversion for the 7-0 lead. Outside center Jianna McCullough scored Lakewood’s two other tries, while fullback Chelsea Clark added a conversion for the 19-0 win.
“I’ve had seven years playing these teams, so I’ve watched and learned a lot from them,” Bruwer said of the Midwest heavyweights like Divine Savior. “Every time they beat us, instead of walking away with our heads down, we’ve learned from the best. We simply doubled our efforts on what we learned, and it really worked. The playmakers punched it up, created space and our speed girls used that space.
“Divine Savior has been national champion six times,” Bruwer continued. “We’ve come close, but we’ve never beaten them until today. They’re one of these teams that if I went on to win the national championship and I never got to play Divine Savior, then it’d be a hollow victory for me. I have a lot of respect for them. I’m really inspired by what they do.”
This Lakewood squad has both been one in the making and one blessed with some special freshmen who have rugby in their blood. Highlighting the team are Clark, who has played on the U-20 national team and brings a wealth of experience to the squad, and 15-year-old power center Anderson, who’s only going to get bigger and stronger as the years wage on.
“I’ve been coaching and playing for 30 years, and because I have so many playmakers, I was confident that we could come out here and at least upset the brackets,” Bruwer said. “As our season unfolded, I knew we had a shot at the championship. But I don’t think the players believed it until now. Coming off the field, everyone was crying – the dads were crying – but they have the confidence now.”
Lakewood will have to keep up the resolve they displayed against Divine Savior as they ready for tomorrow’s final. Fallbrook may be the favorite, but Lakewood heads to the title match with a head full of steam and confidence.