Cam Motley / All photo: Alex Ho (hoiho.net)
By the time Life West got into 7s-qualifying mode, the team had already experienced a couple of peaks this summer. The Gladiatrix repeated as DI 15s national champion, a trek that ended in early June, and then the 7s players traveled to Chula Vista for the high-stakes National Development Academy (NDA) 7s. Toss in additional fixtures like the Rugby World Cup 7s and USA 15s high performance camp, and the wending road to club 7s nationals had the potential for exhaustion.
But Life West has been here before, and despite the hectic summer, the team is heading to New York as the Pacific North’s top-ranked team and bringing a group of players acquainted with the demands of nationals. To boot, Alex Houser, who assisted the women’s team in years past, is dedicated solely to the Gladiatrix this summer. He’s well familiar with the team, due to the fluid nature of the coaching staff, and the variations he’s injected reflect his take on 7s and amplify the squad’s dynamism.
Bitsy Cairns / Photo: Alex Ho (hoiho.net)
Running the show on and off the pitch are co-captains Nicole Strasko and Bitsy Cairns, and they garnered high marks from coach Houser, who also commended the continual gains made by Nikki Kenyon this season. Kenyon’s performance at the NDA 7s earned the scrumhalf an invite to the RWC 7s camp. In terms of breakout performances, the coach also highlighted Emily Roskopf, the lone summer-only player on the squad, who will compete at nationals and then head straight to pre-season with Quinnipiac University; and Mata Hingano, who is currently captaining the Women’s Junior All-Americans at the Tri-Nations Cup in Canada and will thus miss nationals.
Nicole Strasko / Photo: Alex Ho (hoiho.net)
“We’ll miss having Mata because she’s a great player, but the biggest thing we’ll miss is her attitude and fun-loving personality. Everyone enjoys her light-heartedness and we’ll miss having her around,” Houser said of the 7s Eagle’s absence. “We have plenty of depth this year. Probably one of the biggest testaments [to our growth] this year versus the last two years is the quality of player who won’t be traveling to New York for nationals.”
Adding to that depth are Neariah Persinger and Sarah Buonopane, who are future full-time students and will compete in New York. They both kitted up with CCIG at the NDA 7s and thus played with many current Life West teammates and coaching staff.
Emily Roskopf / Photo: Alex Ho (hoiho.net)
“The tourney at [Chula Vista] was pretty high level. I, personally, wanted the ladies to have a bit of fun and enjoy playing with each other for that first [NorCal] tournament,” Houser said of slowing the pace early in the season. “But them being the way they are, they were very competitive. … They came away a little frustrated because they didn’t play their best, but I certainly didn’t expect them to after only a couple of training sessions.”
Life West and Berkeley pushed each other throughout the NorCal season and then traveled to Tacoma, Wash., for the Pacific North championship, where the Pacific Northwest’s Washington Athletic Club and ORSU awaited.
Carlsberg 7s-winning squad / Photo: Alex Ho (hoiho.net)
“It was only four teams in the tournament but four well performing, established sides. It was great,” Houser said. “The girls were really excited to play a high level of competition and we played some of our best 7s of the summer in some of those matches.”
And it was enough to win the top seed from the region, followed by Washington Athletic Club and Berkeley. The Gladiatrix came out of that competition with no glaring changes to be made, just refinements, and Houser focused on getting everyone into a good position where they could take the pitch, be themselves, and just play.
“Half of the squad was at 15s camp last week, so we’ve been really mindful of letting those players recover this week, mentally as much as physically, and making sure they’re fully charged after a long camp last week,” Houser said.
On Sunday, for example, the team worked with a reiki healer and dream sound meditation to relax and have mental clarity heading to New York. Paired with the team’s experience, both at nationals and in 7s, Houser is feeling good about the team’s position heading to the championships.
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