It’s safe to say everyone expected Fallbrook to return to the Girls High School Challenge final, but who knew they’d do it with such a different team? Missing team captain Megan Pinson (who is saving up for her trip to England with the USA Junior All Americans), Fallbrook was also missing stars Johni Durbin and Richelle Stephens to injuries.
Stephens dislocated her knee cap yesterday, and Durbin partially tore her MCL during last weekend’s State Cup against the Sacramento Amazons. But that’s when the San Diego team’s depth has come into play. Casey Karl, Emma Workman and Alexi Eich can be found at the heart of the Warriors’ successful run in Philadelphia, setting the hard-hitting, crisp-passing example for their younger teammates.
“All of these girls, they’re [at the level] right underneath our leaders, and they’ve really stepped it up,” Durbin said. “They’ve shown that we’re just as good, even when our normal leaders are gone.”
That veteran leadership was even more crucial than normal. Coming off their nationals 15s title in mid-May and State Cup trophy last weekend, Fallbrook held only one 7s practice prior to the trip to Philadelphia.
“We’re kinda learning in the games as we go,” Durbin said. “Some of the girls have never played 7s prior to this weekend, so I think we’re doing pretty well. And some of the youngsters have surprised me. I’m used to playing 15s with them, and some of them are forwards who don’t run as much. Then they come out there, and they’re like, ‘I’m going to do a switch and score.’ Where did that come from?! You see a different confidence.”
Coincidentally, younger sister Lilly Durbin was among the youngsters with whom Johni was impressed. The younger Durbin is only in 8th grade and was last seen fielding an onslaught of clearance kicks from Kent’s Cassidy Meyers, during the high school 15s championship. Lilly retained her sweeper position for the 7s team and got her hands on the ball much more often. Truly fun to watch, the middle-schooler is tough and fast like her elders, and she’s going to become a familiar name like her sister’s.
“This is my favorite tournament,” Johni Durbin said. “We got rid of everything that was weighing on our shoulders – defending our nationals [15s] title. It’s a lot of pressure; we’re expected to win. Yes, we had an amazing triumph with our [7s] win last year, but we can let go; it’s more fun. … We’re still serious, though. We’ll start out the game with basics, get that first tackle, first hit, and then the pressure’s gone.”
But then there is, of course, the pressure of the stadium. Playing inside PPL Park will be a new experience for half the team.
“Stadiums, naturally, make me nervous because I feel like everyone’s staring down at you,” Durbin said. “I tell the girls not to pay attention to anything that’s going on around them, just what’s on the field and pretend it’s just another game. It helps me, but I hope it helps them.”
Fallbrook will face Divine Savior Holy Angels (Wisc.) in tomorrow’s final, so stay tuned for all the details.