For the first time since USA Rugby started hosting the Girls High School National Invitational Tournament, there is a two-time consecutive champion: Fallbrook. And although the road to the final was a difficult one, the Warriors ended their 2011-12 season with a 54-5 win over Lakewood.
The Ohio team was the underdog heading into the match, and they were fairly overwhelmed by Fallbrook’s quick attack. Lakewood was good in the breakdown and able to turn the ball over, and also stole some of Fallbrook’s scrums to gain possession. And while power centers Shialah Anderson and Jianna McCullough were able to drag some defenders for yardage, the attack was pretty flat and couldn’t breach Fallbrook’s excellent defense. Lakewood didn’t have much success on the fringe either, as they received the ball meters behind the gainline and stealthy tacklers like hooker Johni Durbin, flanker Marysol Rodriguez and No. 8 Emma Workman were there to keep Lakewood retreating.
“We’re not used to players who just like to crash in the backline,” Championship MVP Megan Pinson said. “It’s usually just forwards, but we adapted and shut them down.”
The scoring began quickly, as Fallbrook methodically marched downfield and sent long, crisp passes across the pitch to spread Lakewood’s defense. There was a constant overload awaiting the outlet pass from the breakdown, and Lakewood couldn’t send enough personnel to cover all of the striking threats.
Inside center Fabiola Gutierrez got the scoring rolling in the second minute, and flyhalf Richelle Stephens dotted down five minutes later. Outside center Casey Karl ran in a hat trick, two of which were intercept tries. Lakewood fullback Chelsea Clark matched Karl’s speed, but the center was untouchable.
“There’s a lot of pressure here,” Karl said while donning her championship medal. “You have to stay really focused, and I think we handled it really well. We worked really hard all year. A lot of people wanted this, but we wanted it more, and we won it as a team.”
Lakewood had a couple of opportunities to score – stealing a scrum and working to the line for pick-and-goes – but Fallbrook’s defense again was on point to drive Lakewood backward. At one point, Lakewood wing Brittany Kapsalis did an excellent job of smothering Fallbrook wing Katherine Wilches, who streaked sideways across the field in Fallbrook’s end. She was prone to this running line in previous games, but Lakewood was too good to give up the outside lane. It resulted in a turnover and a subsequent lineout, but Lakewood erred with a not-straight throw-in (one of several) to kill the momentum.
Lakewood scored in the 23rd minute when flyhalf Caitlin Kilbane ran in a try, and then had the final word of the game, as parents cheered from the stands, encouraging their girls to play through the final whistle. A long steady march downfield eventually saw the hard-running Anderson get over for the try to end 54-10.
Those two tries bookended scores from Fallbrook lock Duncan Taylor, Wilches, Rodriguez, Pinson and Irayda Maceda.
Pinson was named MVP and for good reason. She was incredible all around the field, has a high workrate, impeccable tackling, shifty open-field running, and even a nice boot that sent a couple of cross-field kicks to oncoming wingers. The junior captain is likely Fallbrook’s MVP for the season, as she represented one of four players who had nationals’ experience coming into this weekend.
“Last year, we had a lot of seniors and people with experience, so it was easier,” Pinson said. “This year, we were really young and had to build them up. There were players who came to us as U16 subs last year, so we had to push them harder since they were going to start for the U19s.”
Since Fallbrook coaches Craig and Marin Pinnell promote a player-centric leadership on the field, Pinson had to step up and act as a coach.
“I had to take on a lot more responsibility,” Pinson said. “Last year, I had my sister, so we were a team. So losing her this year, I realized that I had to hold that [standard].”
Pinson has played for the USA U20 team already and is in Women’s National Team coach Pete Steinberg’s crosshairs. Pinson indicated that she plans to attend Penn State when she graduates next year, so her years at the national championship are surely not over.
And nor is Fallbrook’s. The Warriors rebuilt a squad in a short amount of time, and credit is due the coaches and the players who responded in turn. There were a lot of great teams on display this weekend, but Fallbrook has established themselves as the standard of girls’ high school rugby.