It’s difficult to place ORSU into the 7s landscape. On the one hand, this summer marks the Oregon team’s first serious 7s season, so one would expect the team to focus on building interest, familiarizing themselves with the 7s landscape, and laying the foundation for future success. On the other hand, they’re flat-out winning, and the Portland-based team is in the position to qualify for nationals. So they’re compromising, of course, and pursuing both objectives this summer.
ORSU’s 7s story begins with San Juanita Moreno and Molly Luft. The two began attending USA Touch rugby practices and befriended Charles Sanderson, a veteran of the sport.
“They came out and kept pestering me to come out for 7s,” Sanderson said. “ORSU hadn’t really played 7s in the past, and this was their first real, collective attempt to do something formal. They dragged me out and convinced me to spend some time with them.”
Sanderson is glib because he can afford to be. He may have submitted to some friendly coercion at the onset, but he is now fully invested in building ORSU 7s from the ground up. What makes this partnership so fruitful is that the team and coach are growing together. Sanderson took the coaching job with a wealth of rugby touch knowledge, but very little 7s knowledge.
“I played in college and a little club afterward,” Sanderson said of his 15s experience, “but I guarantee you that every match we play in, I’m going to be the most inexperienced coach in terms of coaching and playing strengths, especially compared to all these great teams we’ve had a chance to compete against. They’re an inexperienced 7s team, I’m an inexperienced coach, so we’ve been learning, working and growing together.”
But it’s not like Sanderson joined a group that was hell-bent on winning nationals. Moreno and Luft clearly wanted to be competitive, but there was no consensus among the club as a whole.
“When we talked goals at the beginning of the season, everyone wanted to play 7s as a means to be a better 15s player, and it had nothing to do with 7s itself,” Sanderson said. “There was a handful who wanted to be competitive, a handful who wanted to be social, and another handful who were brand new. As we built it, more people thought: This is a game that I am excited to play. We’re slowly turning them into enjoying it. As a whole unit we haven’t said 7s is our focus yet, so it’s a work in progress for sure.”
The key has been focusing on process and culture, before worrying about results. By “process,” Sanderson is referring to the squad discovering and realizing their strengths, and forming a team strategy around them.
“We are who are,” Sanderson summarized. “Every player, and myself as a coach, has little advantages – we have people who are quick, people who are thumpers – and all you can be is yourself. You can’t be more than who you are, but you have to make sure that you are who are. That’s how we’ve been attacking the process standpoint.”
Part of Sanderson’s challenge is staying one step ahead of the players. Yes, they’re growing together, but he’s had to seek some guidance when broaching the technical side of the game.
“Despite my inexperience, because of touch, I’ve been able to meet a lot of people connected with 7s,” Sanderson said. “[Former USA 7s Eagle] CJ Hildreth has been really helpful this summer. We’ve been emailing back and forth, sharing what’s going on, and getting some great ideas. Even though she’s nowhere near Portland, she’s been a co-coach.”
Before the Pacific Northwest championship, ORSU had only played in one other 7s tournament. No matter, as the team not only advanced to the final but also took a 12-0 lead in the first half against Seattle. ORSU was feeling pretty good, until Seattle’s Carrie White sent a pretty 10-meter restart ball back into the hands of her high-flying teammates, and the Breakers’ 19-point surge began.
“That Serevi kid killed us,” Sanderson said of Seattle’s Asinate. “She was just phenomenal and we didn’t do a good job defending her. That was the big difference in the end. But we battled, and at the end of the game, we had a try held up right at the buzzer, but there was no restart. That’s as even as you’re going to get.
“The final was exciting,” Sanderson continued. “It was the first time everything – our style, our philosophy – we’ve been working on showed up on-field with continuity. I’m most excited by the fact that it’s just a lot of little fixes from that game that need to be addressed, and we’ll be a better team this Saturday than last Saturday.”
But don’t be deceived – while Sanderson was pleased with the performance, the team was devastated to lose.
“I’m a hyper competitive person and plenty of players are as well,” Sanderson said. “It’s an intellectual and emotional difference. Yes we’re about process, not results, but at the same time, there were plenty of tears out there because we were gutted that we didn’t get the result [at the Pacific Northwest final]. What we do with that emotion is channel it back into training this week.”
One thing that could change the face of ORSU for this summer is the injection of a few key players who haven’t committed to 7s. Sharon Blaney, Beckett Royce and Anna Symonds have been absent, and their inclusion would give ORSU a nice lift at nationals. Sanderson requested Symonds in particular to help take on Serevi should the teams meet this weekend.
But Sanderson is pretty confident in the squad he has.
“We’re full of talent and exciting players, but the one who I think accentuated herself was Rachel Johnson,” Sanderson reflected on last weekend. “In the final, about two minutes before halftime, she comes on, puts a little move on the sweeper and goes in for a 95-meter try. She’s got some size, and it says a lot about her range of game and confidence – she has the capacity to thump somebody but also the pace, and can put a little swerve in there too. We have a lot of young kids, but Rachel is the one I can’t say enough about.”
The competition stiffens for ORSU, which now sees the Berkeley All Blues throw into the fray at this Saturday’s Pacific Coast championship. The region receives three seeds to nationals, so with only four teams competing in Seattle, there’s a good chance that Pittsburgh could be a part of ORSU’s inaugural 7s season.