Penn celebrates its DII title at single-school nationals. /// Photo: Mark Russell
Indiana contests its high school state semifinals tomorrow, and for the first time in seven years, a team other than North Central will be named champion. Saturday’s match between Penn and Warsaw, the state’s best teams and finalists the previous three years, is the contest to watch this final four.
Indiana North’s Penn and Warsaw regularly compete at the next level and had good showings at the Midwest championship (Warsaw finished fourth, Penn fifth) and the first single-school national championship (Warsaw finished 7th in DI, Penn won DII). In the lead-up to nationals, Penn defeated Warsaw 24-17 in the teams’ regular-season meeting, emphasizing the healthy rivalry that exists between them.
“Last year, we moved on from semi-state and played North Central in the final, but it was a significant [32-17] defeat,” Penn coach Adrian Sharkey said. “The last couple of years between us and Warsaw, we’ve really been competing for second place [in the state]. But this year, with both of us competing at Midwests and nationals, one of us will probably win state and have the new regime. Really we just hope to keep the state trophy in the North.”
Penn is led by a solid cast of juniors, and core players Kathleen Gearhart (who was named one of Indiana’s top athletes of the spring), Tori Jones, Emily Reverman and Rilee Taege drive the team’s performance.
“We have the right mixture of experience right now, and they finally figured out how to work together,” Sharkey said.
That cohesion was well demonstrated at nationals. Starting scrumhalf Taege had strained her MCL, relegating her to the sidelines.
“She was coaching more than I was out there,” Sharkey praised. “She’d be in the technical zone after tries, helping out with the organization on the field. I was trying to give her advice on what to tell the players, and she’d have 10 more things to add on. It was really great to see, and that’s the kind of team I have right now.”
When the second-string scrumhalf went down, Sharkey pulled from the bench, and the team handled the rest. Flyhalf Jenna Tschida moved over to the #9 slot, and the rest of the team adjusted positions without direction. As the weekend evolved, Penn reiterated that it responds well to pressure.
“This year I chose to be in DII, just to go out there and say we did it, but it was really at our level,” Sharkey said of nationals. “It was very competitive, and playing teams from other areas brings different types of attack and defensive set-ups – smarter playing. Kansas City was hard-hitting. The Sharks from Florida – their eightman was very aggressive in tackling and attack. Hudson – we played them for 5th at Midwest – they come at you like a hammer. They had a really good strategy, where they’d kick their penalties for territory and then maul in their lineouts for tries.”
Penn defeated Kansas City 31-12, Sebastian River 46-0 and Hudson 40-29 for the DII title.
“I ask them to grade themselves – A, B, C – after every game, and they score much higher when they play against better competition. It brings out the best in them playing wise,” the coach said. “For the girls, it was the first time they’ve traveled this far out of state, and like most teams, you get better after these experiences – you’re in tight quarters and you’re here just to play rugby.”
Despite its 7th place finish, Warsaw played admirably in DI. The team pushed Midwest champion Divine Savior Holy Angels to a 24-5 decision in the quarterfinals; tied Hawaii state champion Kahuku, which lost by two points to eventual DI champion St. Joseph in the quarterfinals, at regulation before losing on overtime kicks; and beat Tennessee state champion McMinn 43-28 for 7th.
Both teams have a bit of momentum heading into this weekend’s state playoffs.
“The girls are still on a high from last weekend’s wins and they’re in good spirits moving into states,” the coach confirmed. “Warsaw is not going to roll over for a trophy. They will come at us with everything they’ve got. It will be a dog fight.”
Right now, Sharkey is just trying to keep the team focused. School is coming to a close and the call of summer is gaining volume.
“It’s a never-ending battle,” Sharkey laughed. “I just hope they don’t take their foot off the throttle. They have been focused and playing competitively up through last weekend, so I’m hoping that nationals wasn’t our big thing this year. I’m hoping that state will be.
Penn will miss co-captain and fullback Jones, who is competing at speed skating regionals tomorrow. Sharkey indicated that her absence is a big loss and the vacancy will be difficult to fill.
“As long as they don’t get down on themselves for the little things, I think they can do it. It all comes down to who shows up,” Sharkey summarized.
Pike plays Arsenal in the South state semifinal. Pike advanced to the final four after defeating North Central 15-5 in the quarterfinals, while Arsenal bettered Noblesville 40-0. The state championship will be contested on Monday, May 30.