Divine Savior Holy Angels enjoyed a mixed-bag experience at the Girls High School National Invitational Tournament. The perennial Midwest champion came in with high hopes and was aided by a bevy of hometown supporters and familiar playing grounds. The team was rewarded with a third-place finish, but there was some residual disappointment not playing in the final.
The Wisconsin side’s campaign began against the Sacramento Amazons. This quarterfinal was a highly anticipated one, as the two sides had managed to evade each other while vying for national championships for the last several years. The two coaches – DSHA’s John Klein and Sacramento’s Sefesi Green – are good friends, but it was time to pit their two sides against each other.
“Sacramento was the most physical team we’ve ever played,” DSHA co-captain Emily Van Bibber said. “We knew we had to come out and at least meet their physicality. They definitely bruised us a bit, but we played hard and were able to pull through by getting the ball outside. It was a well fought match.”
DSHA exited with a 20-12 win and a bid to the semifinals against Kent (Wash.), which had outlasted West Carroll 12-5 in round one. The team was feeling good and ready to plead their case for a final’s berth.
“This team is the closest it’s been in four years,” the senior said. “No one ever turned against each other, there was no fighting or complaining when we were running. It’s the most focused team we’ve ever had. With all that hard work, our skill was really up there, too. Sadly, we got a few injuries to talented players right before nationals but still had subs who could fill in. So our talent was the best we’ve had in four years.”
But it wasn’t the cards, as DSHA let a 7-0 halftime lead slip away, and Kent exited with a 22-20 win.
“That was a bummer,” Van Bibber said. “Everyone was sad because we thought we had it, and it slipped away. But at night, everyone realized that how we responded was going to define us as rugby players and a team.”
So DSHA returned to day two with renewed vigor. In the third place match, they faced familiar foes in Catholic Memorial, which defeated Summit before losing to Fallbrook in the semifinals. It was a rematch of last year's nationals.
The game started well for DSHA as they built a 10-0 lead in the first half. But then Catholic Memorial buckled down and ran in two tries of their own to lead 12-10 heading into the break. Again, DSHA was forced to check themselves, and the experience they gleaned from the Kent game kicked in.
“There was never a point where I thought we had this [game],” Van Bibber said. “As you saw in the second round, a team can pull through. But I never doubted my team, never lost confidence in them.”
The second half was played in Catholic Memorial’s end, and tries from Beth Pokorny, Maggie Brennan, Lindey Wise and Katherine MacPherson helped produce the 27-12 win.
“It was a good way to end,” Van Bibber reflected on her final 15s match with DSHA. “It pretty much sums up our four years. We’ve played Catholic Memorial at states, regionals and nationals the last two years. We played harder that we ever have, so it’s a great way to end.”
But it was bittersweet still, especially for Van Bibber, who doesn’t plan to continue her 15s career in college.
“I’m going to UW Madison, and nothing against their team, but I don’t think they could live up to the team here,” Van Bibber said. “I like 7s, so if something comes up with that, then I’ll keep playing, but for 15s, that’s probably it.”
For the rest of DSHA, this year’s NIT experience will continue to fuel their desire to return to the final once again.