For the last four years, teams had to play-in to the Girls High School/U19 National Championship, but 2012 marked the return to an invitational (the competition’s format from 1999-2007). This year’s teams had to apply for entry into the tournament, and not only had to prove their history of success on the field but also their financial aptitude. The goal was to get the best eight teams in the country competing, regardless of territorial seeds, and also alleviate the financial pressure of a late berth to nationals. But as with any new system, it was met with some resistance.
Six of the eight teams invited competed in the 2011 NIT and at least one other recent tournament. The 7th and 8th place teams – New York and Sebastian River (Fla.) – were replaced by Catholic Memorial (Wisc.) and Downingtown (Pa.).
First, the obvious choices: Fallbrook High School (San Diego) and Sacramento Amazons. The two California teams have been finalists the previous two years, splitting titles. Divine Savior (Wisc.) won the previous six NITs and finished 3rd the last two tournaments. Kent (Wash.) also has a slew of NIT appearances and always gives the top teams a run for their money.
Lakewood could easily find itself in a top-four spot, having lost to Kent by a point in last year’s first round, and with multiple NIT trips under their belt. West Carroll, too, has been MARFU’s best team the last couple of years and finished only two points shy of Lakewood for sixth.
Those six teams’ invitations are difficult to dispute and all rightfully deserve their spot at nationals. But when it came to filling out the roster, the National High School Invitational Committee chose to double up in Wisconsin and Eastern Pennsylvania. Representing the girls’ division was Marin Pinnell (Fallbrook), John Klein (DSHA), Bryn Chivers (USA U20 WNT) and Brad Rockwood (West Carroll).
“The applications were each evaluated, the references contacted and each team was contacted to discuss their structure, strength and history,” USA Rugby Director of Youth and High School Rugby Kurt Weaver explained. “The goal is to get the eight teams that most deserve to be there from the applicants involved. The evaluation process went off the applications and prior national tournaments, prior state tournaments and prior play.
“The applications for those two teams [Catholic Memorial and Downingtown] and the other six were stronger than the other applications,” Weaver continued. “Both New York and Sebastian River applied, but were not as strong applicants.”
Sources close to the committee say that the debate over those final two teams was probably the most spirited discussion of any of the three championships, including the boys’ high school and U19 divisions. Some were pushing hard for a second tier to ensure the right eight were picked at the top, and that might happen in 2013, but USA Rugby had already made plans for 2012 which precluded extra teams.
The good intentions are there, but the new process does take that wild-card factor out of the tournament. There’s no rewarding an up-and-coming team until they prove their worth.
“I feel like this system is a bit bogus,” New York coach Molly Dengler said. “I understand it because I realize that USA Rugby is a bit of an organizational mess these days, but try explaining that to the girls. It simply doesn't make sense that no matter how well you perform in your season and at the State Championships that there is no way to go farther now. I hope that this new system is only temporary, while the SBROs come together to provide another, more fair way of qualifying for nationals. It places unnecessary limits on new up-and-coming clubs that cannot prove longevity of success. Let's take the San Diego Surfers in the WPL as an example. The WPL structure made it possible for them to come in to the WPL and get the #1 seed in the conference going into nationals based on their stellar first season. Shouldn't this be a model for more national playoffs?”
Dengler admitted that her team would have had a difficult time affording the trip even if it had been invited to nationals. Additionally, New York’s league schedule all but disappeared once the SBRO, Rugby New York, eliminated New Jersey teams from their spring lineup. New York struggled on the national stage last year and could have used another league to develop their talent. Dengler suspected that the aforementioned factors played a big role in why New York was omitted.
But having healthy competition and winning history within one’s SBRO isn’t necessarily a boon as far as nationals are concerned. Take Tennessee, for example. Even if two-time state champion Ravenwood applied for this year’s NIT, they wouldn’t have been able to attend as the USA Rugby championship is scheduled on the same weekend as states. Rugby Colorado’s Summit High School, arguably the best team in the country under coach Karl Barth’s direction, also didn’t apply for the NIT, and likely never will since rugby is sequestered to one season (fall) the way most high school sports operate. In general, the NIT occurs too early (mid May) for high school sports to participate, and more coordination between USAR and SBROs is needed in order to expand the competition.
If the competition could expand to 16 teams, then room would open for squads like Mother Lode. One of the top two teams in the competitive Sacramento Valley region, Mother Lode was denied entry into this year’s NIT.
“On February 4 we had a game with the Amazons and Mother Lode won 24 to 10,” Mother Lode Ron Chance said. “We still did not receive an invitation and my girls are crushed. I understand the Amazons deserve an invitation because they were last year's runner-up. I'm disappointed the new selection process is not about getting the best teams at nationals and still mired with politics.
“I'm extremely disappointed,” Chance continued. “We are clearly one of the best teams in the country. It is unfortunate we have the annual national champion or runner-up, Amazons, in the same town. I was under the impression that the new invitation policy was set up specifically to address this situation.”
Even if Mother Lode beats the Amazons in their regular season match at the end of the month, or even at the league championships, there’s no guarantee into next year’s tournament, but that’s how the excluded teams must view their current seasons – as fodder for next year’s application.