The Girls High School National Invitational Tournament produced a program and inside listed all of teams’ rosters. Some of the squads are broken out by grades, including Fallbrook, which is impressively balanced. That ideal is a fortunate side effect of a thoughtful age grade program, as Fallbrook fields U14, U16 and U18 teams. Young, gifted athletes are pulled forward, and their rugby education is enriched beside their national-caliber athletes.
A sophomore, Richelle Stephens is already considered a veteran. The flyhalf was integral to last year’s national championship and then earned RugbyMag.com’s Most Valuable Player at the USA Sevens High School Challenge in Philadelphia. She, along with teammates Megan Pinson and Casey Karl, trained alongside the USA 7s women during the summer. Stephens returned to the NIT an even more dynamic player, and playing flyhalf on a team of superstars suits her.
“Yes, it has affected the team,” Stephens said of her and her teammates’ exposure to national-level 7s. “We came back with open minds, with more to tell, more to teach. The camp instructors told us to keep notes, and then we shared them with our coaches, who put them into drills for the team. Now everyone’s gained from what we’ve learned at the camps.”
Stephens leads an incredibly potent backline, which is augmented by agile, highly skilled forwards. Fallbrook doesn’t typically spend much time on defense, but they were challenged in their opening game against Danville.
“They were big and hit really hard,” Stephens said. “We saw the holes in their defense, but they definitely saw the holes in ours and exploited them. … Their 15 would pop out of nowhere and just run like mad. We adjusted. I told the backs that since the flyhalf usually passed, that I’d slide to [cover] inside center, Jeanine [Garcia] would push to outside center, and then Casey [Karl] to wing, or if we saw the fullback to mark her, because she was going to take it.”
Stephens took control and helped organize the containment of the Danville fullback. She has the support of veteran wings Katherine Wilches and Clarissa Perez, who were outstanding today, not only on breakaways but in buying time when support was slow against a poach-eager Danville. But she’s also mentor to some newcomers.
“We have a lot of advanced young people,” Stephens said. “Kayla [Canett], who plays outside center and wing, is a freshman and so advanced for her age. We also have a couple of 8th graders. Sara [Workman] is really advanced at only 13 or 14 years old, and she’s playing up with us. There are so many youngsters who can fill our shoes when we graduate.”
The 8th grader who really impressed us today was fullback Lilly Durbin. Recognize the name? She’s one of two sister pairings on Fallbrook – Johni is Lilly’s older sister; and the Workmans, Emma and Sara, comprise the other duo.
“I’ve known about rugby for three years because of my sister,” Lilly said. “I played soccer forever, and I had always said, ‘I’m going to go pro!’ And then I changed my mind at last year’s nationals. Just watching them play, they’re so close, just like sisters. I just wanted to be a part of it.”
Durbin pleaded her case for a starting position when the regular fullback, Michel Navarro, was absent for a few weeks. The 14-year-old was solid and embraced the no-fear defense typical of Fallbrook and necessary at fullback.
“Danville was more challenging than Catholic Memorial, who are more our size,” Durbin said. “I’m kinda used to having to get the big girls down, though. One of the teams we played in league, they had this really big player, and she broke through our defensive line. I had to get her, and that’s when I learned that I just have to make those kinds of tackles.”
Ironically, Lilly is protective of her older sister, Johni, who plays hooker.
“It’s so fun playing with my sister,” Lilly said. “But whenever there’s something wrong, or there’s a maul and it’s really feisty, I just make sure she’s not involved in it because I’m scared that she’s going to get hurt.”
It’s clear, however, that Durbin the junior high-schooler doesn’t entertain those thoughts too often. She represents this breed of young, confident athletes who keep filtering into the Fallbrook program. It’s a set-up to which every youth program should aspire.