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Tribe or Die: McMinn HS is Nationals Bound

  • 16 May 2016

McMinn County High School coach Buck Billings didn’t know what to expect of his squad this year, so he arranged an ambitious pre-season that would provide some insight. The Tennessee Tribe traveled as far as New York for competition, sampled National Development Academy (NDA) instruction, and played 7s and 15s all in 2016. Everywhere they went, onlookers were impressed and talks of nationals started to become more prevalent.

“Seriously? You think we’re up to that,” Billings recalled his reaction when Morris recommended his team’s participation at nationals.

Those questions were officially answered when Tribe won its first-ever Tennessee state championship. That was an important win, because McMinn has committed to nationals.

“I don’t want to limit expectations,” Billings responded to whether he held conservative goals for nationals. “The girls have surprised me. So I tell them: Let’s just try to win this. Are we favorites? Are we young? Yes, but why can’t we overcome those things and exceed expectations the way we have all year?”

McMinn had graduated a decent amount of starters but they were replaced with a core of juniors, all of whom were first XV players last year. In the forwards, prop Makayla Lowe and No. 8 Jordan Butcher are the go-forward leaders and have injected more high-level experience into the group after attending the Girls’ High School All American (GHSAA) East Camp.

The Pruitt sisters, Mariah and Onycha, set the pace in terms of work rate. It’s not uncommon to see flanker Onycha clearing out successive rucks, and Mariah was named MVP of the state championship.

Halfback twins Elexus and BreAnna Gable bring a special synchronicity to the attack and get that breakdown ball moving to the center-based back line.

But it wasn’t until McMinn hopped in their county-sponsored short bus that Billings understood the talent in the younger ranks.

McMinn fundraises all year long, receives good support from the community, and knows how to travel cheaply. That formula allowed the Tennessee side to fill its pre-season with competitive road games. After a solid performance against out-of-state teams at Nash Bash, McMinn took a spring break road trip through the nation’s capital to New York City. GHSAA coach Farrah Douglas connected Billings with Washington, D.C.-based Scion, the country’s newest NDA. Academy director Joanne Lui hosted McMinn for a one-day camp and was impressed with the team’s skill level. Lowe and Mariah Pruitt were later invited to represent the first Scion Academy high school team at the Atlanta 7s Festival.

With some praise propelling the team north along I-95, McMinn defeated South Jersey and then beat nationals-bound Morris 29-22 in a friendly.

“That’s when we realized that we looked better than expected,” Billings’ a-ha moment coincided with Morris’ encouragement that McMinn play at the national level. “I contacted the single-school [national committee] – because that’s what we are – and started sending them match reports. They put us in the top division.”

The freshmen started to distinguish themselves. Macey Womac was making an impact from the front row and flanker, while 14-year-old Justice Satherlie proved to be a pure inside center. They’re two of the fastest players on the team and back themselves in the weight room. Newcomer Destiny Henry put her hand up as well and settled into wing.

The whole team committed to strength and conditioning and runs through a rugby-styled Crossfit program three times per week. Combined with the successful pre-season, McMinn was physically and mentally confident, and it changed the way the team performed during the league season.

“They’re more assertive at the breakdown, and flexible and explosive, and go in low and fast,” Billings detailed the confidence effect on game play. “We really emphasize a strong clear-out and fast ball – efficiency in the rucks. … Our work rate is faster, too, and that just helps us maintain possession.”

McMinn isn’t going to beat you down the sideline; they’re going to chip away 5-6 meters at a time, and play off their centers off the breakdown. The pay-offs are realized later in the game as the opposition fatigues.

McMinn cruised through league. The way Tennessee is structured, the top team from each division advances to the state Cup bracket, while the runners-up move to the Bowl competition. For years, McMinn finished second to the McKenzie Hawkins-driven Maryville and was relegated to the Bowl. Until 2016, McMinn was the three-time reigning Bowl champion.

While Billings credited his team’s post-season opponents, McMinn was never in doubt of the state title, beating Columbia Central 43-15 in the semifinals and Ravenwood 46-5 in the title bout.

“They were really pumped to win their first state championship,” Billings said. “We wanted that to be the focus and anything at nationals was a bonus.

“Yesterday there was a lot less stress at training preparing for nationals than for states,” the coach continued. “I was nervous before states because practices were flat and tense at times. Yesterday was a great practice and I’m feeling better. I know we’ll be playing phenomenal teams but we’re feeling good.”

Whatever happens in St. Charles, Mo., this weekend, it will be another revelation for the players.

“Athens is a pretty poor town,” the Nashville native said. “I’ve had a different life experience than these kids. I want to expose them to what rugby can do for them. Motivate them to look beyond what they have here.”

After touring New York City, playing with the Scion Academy and All Americans, and college scouts awaiting at Lindenwood University, there’s no doubt that these players will return to Tennessee with a better understanding of rugby’s reach.

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