Roosevelt’s championship squad
It was an all-Des Moines final, as 2016 champion East High School and Roosevelt High School met in Monday night’s state 7s final. The two programs have similar profiles – alumni serving as head coaches and also as state all-star staff – but Roosevelt distinguished itself in a 31-7 victory for the team’s first state trophy.
Roosevelt’s path to the top has been a winding one, and it begins with head coach Jessyka Clark. The 2003 alumna founded the team four years ago, but had no coaching experience prior to the post. Clark had picked up the sport as a sophomore in high school, but had to play with a local senior club.
“I only knew my position in 15s. I knew there was 7s but had no idea about the structure,” Clark reflected. “Coach Kelsie McDowell has mentored me since the first year we met. I’m so appreciative of everything she’s done for me. Every piece of rugby knowledge I have, and that I’ve passed on, is a credit to her.”
McDowell was the league director and Southeast Polk head coach when Roosevelt formed, and today, Clark serves as assistant coach at McDowell’s Simpson College and Iowa Hawkettes teams. In Roosevelt’s first season, the team entered the playoffs seeded sixth and upset the third-place team.
Roosevelt’s full squad
“That first year, the girls made me look good. I got the Coach of the Year award, but I didn’t deserve it,” Clark redirected the acclaim. “The next year we finished 3rd/4th [losing semifinalists don’t contest a 3rd-place match], and then last year we did poorly.”
After a disappointing 2017, Clark consulted McDowell for some advice.
“We talked about discipline, that it’s not enough to run a team off emotion, because it doesn’t necessarily translate on the field,” said Clark, who explained that playing for the love of the game, alone, isn’t enough to sustain a team.
“We had three freshmen and a first-year sophomore come in. They’ve all played sports together in the past and understand Monday-Friday practice and what it takes,” Clark pointed to Ivy Lawson, Olivia Mulford, Liberty Cawthorn and Jenesis Dotson. “McDowell also said: Tell them to set a goal and achieve it.”
Assistant coach Kevin Fernandez and Clark during the championship’s halftime
But there were some growing pains. At least four players quit when their multi-year careers didn’t automatically equate to a starting position. Clark pointed to upstarts like the aforementioned quartet, who were talented, hard-working and committed, and thus selected on game day. This became the new norm and players bought in.
“Our numbers have been amazing, and that’s what kind of led to the success we’ve had,” Clark said. “We had 20 girls so we scrimmaged all the time, and it was very beneficial.”
Roosevelt employed textbook 7s, working pitch-stretching phases together until the space opened up for finishers like the Morris sisters, Jada and Jocee, who have great chemistry and lights-out speed. Clark also highlighted German exchange student Elisabeth Kaiser, who did an excellent job shoring up the scrums and teaching players the proper hooking technique.
On Sunday, Iowa Youth Rugby contested its quarterfinals: Ankeny 38-5 Indianola, East 33-10 Dowling, Southeast Polk 34-17 Valley, and Roosevelt 21-0 Mason City. Des Moines’ East then defeated Ankeny 28-19, and Roosevelt shut out Southeast Polk 33-0. The victors then rested up for Monday’s final.
Championship MVP Jada Morris
“It was intense for a little bit, and they didn’t feel like they rolled over East – it was a state championship,” Clark said of the intensity. “East did get a yellow card, and that 100% was the turning point. The girls know what that means – there’s a weakness – and they hit that spot.”
Jada Morris was named championship MVP for her devastating carries, and Ava Denner’s kicking precision, which sits at an 85% success rate, was also influential. The Hawkette learned her technique from East head coach Nick Sawhill, who is a Hawkette assistant coach, and thanked him after the final.
“That’s what it’s all about, passing on this knowledge to carry on for generations to come,” Clark quoted Sawhill. “He responded so humbly, which is tough to do right after losing a state final.”
Clark is excited to see how this state championship will impact the popularity of the sport at the high school, and is anticipating a surge in interest. Until then, girls’ high school rugby in Iowa goes dormant until the state all-star team, Hawkettes, starts eying the summer 7s season.