The final is set. Two-time reigning champion Fallbrook (Calif.) will meet Kent (Wash.) in the Girls’ High School National Invitational Championship. The teams took two very different paths to the final during today’s playoffs, and that could influence the performances tomorrow.
The Warriors were the heavy favorites coming into this competition. Players like Megan Pinson, Casey Karl, Richelle Stephens and Johni Durbin are already familiar names on national team coaches’ watch list, but today’s two victories showed that there’s already a new, younger class ready to step into - and excel in - major roles.
Fallbrook started their day with a 41-0 quarterfinal win over first-year team Danville (Calif.). The Northern California team endured an educational introduction to championship rugby, as the best backline in the high school game used their pace and exceptional passing skills to spread the field and attack the gaps. Danville didn’t roll over, however, and did a good job of combining their size and speed for linebreaks. Danville's fullback was particularly damaging inserting into the line, but her opposite, 8th grader Lily Durbin (Johni’s younger sister), was a rock in the backfield.
Karl, who led last year’s championship in tries scored, showcased her incredible speed and accounted for two tries, while Pinson, Stephens, Emma Workman and freshman center Kayla Canett (2) ran in five-pointers. Also impressive, Fallbrook has a slew of conversion kickers, with Stephens taking a dropgoal for two points and wing Clarissa Perez notching another two.
That set up Fallbrook’s semifinal against co-host Catholic Memorial (Wisc.), which rallied back to defeat Summit (Colo.) 12-5 in the opening round. Fallbrook initiated the scoring during the opening kickoff, as Karl took the receipt up through the belly, and the ball recycled to Pinson, who stiff-armed her way to a 50-plus-meter try. Workman, Karl, Perez (also kicked a penalty), freshman Michel Navrarro and 8th grader Sara Workman (Emma’s younger sister) followed with tries for the 33-0 win.
These shutouts not only allowed Fallbrook to work their roster, but will also put them in better physical condition for the final against Kent tomorrow. The Washington side battled through two tough games, but is a better team for it.
Kent and West Carroll were at a try apiece into the second half of their quarterfinal, when a long injury break halted play near the Maryland side’s 22 meter. While West Carroll’s flanker was being bandaged back up, the question became: Who’s going to regain the momentum once play restarts? It was Kent, who right from the whistle, saw flyhalf Cassidy Meyers dive over the line and give Kent the 12-5 lead.
A massive battle ensued, as West Carroll flyhalf Maggie Myles threatened every time she had her hands on the ball, whether kicking to space or wriggling through the defense. There were many penalties that prevented either side from building a sustained attack, but Kent’s defense shored up and held on for the win.
That high-intensity game was followed by arguably the best match of the day. NIT co-host Divine Savior exited the quarterfinals with a 20-12 win over the Sacramento Amazons, a game that many have been awaiting for years. The Dashers were equally bruised and battered heading into the final four match, but behind the senior leadership of co-captains Emily Van Bibber and Lindey Wise, DSHA was looking fast and solid.
DSHA ran out to a quick lead almost immediately off the kickoff, and the vocal sideline support continued to roar as the home side added another to try to build their lead. Down but not out, Kent got the boost they needed when outside center Asinate Serevi intercepted a pass and took it in for Kent’s first points. That try seemed to reinvigorate the Washington team, and with only minutes left in the game, the score stood at 20-15 to Divine Savior Holy Angels.
Kent tied it up from a penalty deep in DSHA’s end, getting good go-forward from Meyers and a beautiful, long pass from Serevi to space out wide. After a couple of attempts at the line, Kent finally dove over to ground the try, 20-20. It came down to a difficult, off-center conversion, but Meyer’s boot proved true and Kent led 22-20.
An ferocious battle followed to the final whistle, while DSHA desperately worked their way into Kent's territory. The Dashers certainly had their chances to score, working an excellent backline past defenders but often erring on that last pass. The final blow came when DSHA received a penalty about 10 meters off Kent’s tryline. The team forewent the attempt at points, despite the coaches’ pleas, and an unfortunate knock-on at the tap sent the ball back into Kent’s hands. At the whistle, the game held in the balance for a few minutes as the referee double-checked the score with assistant referees. But there was no drama, as both teams’ staff knew the outcome.
Kent’s biggest challenge will come tomorrow, and if they’re to challenge Fallbrook, they’ll need to be incredibly disciplined in the breakdown, not committing too many players to the ruck. Fallbrook’s forwards like to set up their own line, mimicking the wide-open grace shown through their backs, and they’ve yet to face an American team that shuts them down. A great show is certain to evolve. Stay tuned for players’ feedback on the day.
Below are day one's results, including division two on the second tab.