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St. Joseph, Single-School Champ

  • 23 May 2016

St. Joe flyhalf Rachael Kean vs. Summit. /// Photos: Andrea Rolf

Ohio’s St. Joseph Academy is the first-ever Girls Single-School National Champion and worked through some of the country’s best teams to claim the title. It was a tremendous accomplishment that included two two-point victories and evolved despite having only one sub.

Senior prom conflicted with nationals, but the four seniors who chose rugby were greatly rewarded for the sacrifice. Hooker Rebecca Sullivan, wing Teresa Kelly, inside center Mary Hirzel and flyhalf Rachael Kean led the team on the weekend.

“This is the first year of the single school championship. Everyone is on the same playing field, pulling from one school. The girls, to them, it’s a game, but they slowly came to realize what this means and why we separated [from the club teams],” St. Joseph Academy coach Jaime Cleary said. “When we were at Midwests [championships], I thought: If this is the caliber of teams we’ll be competing against, then we’re right up there with them. We deserve a final four.”

The weekend started against Hawaii state champion Kahuku, a two-year-old program making its debut at nationals. Kahuku coach Nusi Tukuafu and Cleary had communicated in advance, formed a good relationship and had the players exchange gifts to welcome each other to the tournament.

Keane and prop Annie Rolf set the pace for their side’s performance and continued to be sources of inspiration throughout the weekend. As the teams traded shots, the duo helped St. Joseph remain calm and controlled.

“It was a very tight game,” Cleary said after the 17-15 quarterfinal win. “They were fit and tough. We had a little more rugby knowledge and capitalized on that. Although, if it wasn’t for fullback Hannah Carruthers – who had two or three try-saving tackles – it could have been a different story.”

Kahuku went on to defeat Warsaw in overtime on kicks (a scenario similar to the team’s state playoffs) and then beat Pennsylvania state champion State College 28-10 for fifth.

The Ohio side advanced to the semifinals to face its ultimate rival, Divine Savior Holy Angels, which had defeated Warsaw 24-5 in the opening round. The Wisconsin side was brimming with confidence after winning the Midwest championship two weekends ago, a title that included a one-try win over St. Joseph.

“It was going to be a win, no matter what, and we had to be ready for it,” Cleary spoke to the team’s mindset heading into the semifinals.

St. Joe’s took the first lead with a converted try, but then an opportunistic Dashers side took advantage of some errors for back-to-back tries. The Wisconsin team led 17-7 at the break.

The Ohio team reinforced itself during halftime and committed to an iron-clad defense that ended up shifting the momentum. Kean and Rolf, again, were key to the comeback, as was Hirzel, who is typically a lock, and No. 8 Maeve Mullen. On offense, St. Joseph consolidated the ball in the pack, where it tends to dominate, and avoided the Dashers’ line speed out wide.

As St. Joseph held Divine Savior Holy Angels off of the scoreboard, it ran in two tries and the all-important conversion afforded the 19-17 victory.

“Defense in the second half was amazing,” the coach praised. “It was the first time we’ve ever beat Divine Savior. After every game, they’re so excited. They’re like little kids when they win – it’s amazing.”

Colorado’s Summit awaited in the final. The Tigers defeated State College 26-14 in the quarterfinals and Catholic Memorial 17-0 in the semifinals for the title berth.

“We had momentum heading into the final, and they wanted that first place. As coaches, we knew they could do this, but it was up to them and we had to let them roll with it,” said Cleary, who was backed by assistant coaches Sara Leary and Mary Jo Reddy. “We told them: If you want this game, you have to take it.”

It was the third back-and-forth bout for St. Joseph, and Summit took a 14-12 lead into the break.

“We’re a second-half team and gave the same speech we gave them against Divine Savior,” Cleary remembered. “We’re very sound on offense – we keep the ball moving and go forward – but it’s the defense that we have to focus on because we don’t get many opportunities to practice it.”

Kean and Rolf resumed their posts as inspirational leaders, and rookie flanker Claire Forrestal did a fantastic job picking from the rucks and piercing the line. Again, fullback Carruthers cleaned up line-breaks and helped keep a second-half shutout in place.

The offense got a boost when Summit incurred a yellow card for a 10-minute player disadvantage. St. Joseph scored two tries in that time, the winning score coming from Sullivan (inset photo). St. Joseph pulled ahead 29-14 for the championship title.

“Every single game was a victory in itself,” Cleary said. “We went from game to game and didn’t think ahead. We had one sub – all 15 girls were very focused and doing the same thing.”

The Dashers finished in third place with a 25-0 win over Catholic Memorial, and Indiana’s Penn won Division II with a 40-29 win over Ohio’s Hudson in the final. It was an all-around fantastic display of single-school talent in St. Charles, Mo., home to the DI Elite Lindenwood Lions, and a solid precedent for championships to come.



QF: Catholic Memorial 22-7 McMinn

QF: Summit 26-14 State College

QF: Divine Savior Holy Angels 24-5 Warsaw

QF: St. Joseph 17-15 Kahuku

SF: Summit 17-0 Catholic Memorial

SF: St. Joseph 19-17 Divine Savior Holy Angels

Cons SF: State College 34-10 McMinn

Cons SF: Kahuku def Warsaw (kick tiebreaker)

7th Place: Warsaw 43-28 McMinn

5th Place: Kahuku 28-10 State College

3rd Place: DSHA 25-0 Catholic Memorial

Final: St. Joseph 29-14 Summit


Pool Play

Penn 31-12 Kansas City

Penn 46-0 Sebastian River

Hudson 44-7 Oak Creek

Hudson 26-9 Broken Arrow

Kansas City 15-12 Sebastian River

Broken Arrow 24-7 Oak Creek

5th Place: Kansas City 30-26 Oak Creek

3rd Place: Broken Arrow 32-7 Sebastian River

Final: Penn 40-29 Hudson

#StJosephAcademy #SingleSchoolNationalChampionship

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