American International College (AIC) brought mostly underclassmen to its first LVI, but veteran leadership from players like captain Muneera Patton helped the Yellow Jackets to a Women’s College 7s title. The final’s victory against Lindenwood supplied some recompense from a previous defeat, and it also boosted confidence as AIC looks toward the first NCAA varsity 7s circuit this spring.
A temperate winter meant that AIC could train outdoors earlier than usual; however, NCAA regulations limit how much time coaches can spend with athletes during the pre-season. AIC coach Dimitri Efthimiou is allowed two hours’ access per week, and so senior Patton was responsible for player-led captain’s practices.
“I let players make decisions,” Efthimiou said. “I’m not yelling what play to run when they’re on the field or telling them what what to do. Muneera and I, we talk a lot and she’s fully aware of what I’m looking for. She has full rights to make decisions on the field – like kicking to touch or playing on – and the players are used to looking to her for leadership. I trust her to run sessions … and I’ve heard she works them hard.”
That preparation paid off early on, as AIC began the LVI with a 45-0 win over Utah Valley, and after a forfeit bye, defeated the Midwest Thunderbirds 42-0.
“We didn’t really know what to expect because it was our first time in Vegas,” Efthimiou said. “The competition was decent; there were more north-south teams than we would’ve liked. But the second day – the quarterfinals through final – those games weren’t easy at all. We had sustained a couple of injuries on day one and were down to a 10-man roster.”
AIC beat Arizona 17-0 in the Cup quarterfinals, edged the University of Albert 19-17 in the semis, and lined up against the also-undefeated Lindenwood in the final. The Lions had posted similar numbers through pool play, bettering New Mexico State 52-0, Dixie State 45-0 and also edging Alberta 22-19. The Missouri squad shut out Michigan 29-0 in the quarters and the University of British Columbia 33-14 to advance to the championship.
“From what I saw, Lindenwood played in a very similar way to us,” Efthimiou said. “They’re about passing and speed first, instead of running straight into contact. But we perform best when we don’t worry about those things. The players aren’t interested in knowing too much about the other team, whereas I’ll create a game plan. They’re better off on their own, showing up and having fun, and just going for it.”
But AIC did know Lindenwood to an extent. Several players from both teams competed in last year’s USA Sevens Women’s CRC, and the Lions’ 14-5 pool play victory essentially cost the Yellow Jackets a trip to the final. AIC was eager for the rematch, and considering that the Massachusetts team can’t compete in USA Rugby’s 7s or USA Sevens’ CRC championships (due to season-length restrictions), the opportunity might not happen again for a while.
AIC got on the board first and Lindenwood answered quickly afterward for the 5-5 tie. The Yellow Jackets were able to cross just before halftime and then added a second-half try for the 15-5 win.
The Harvey sisters, Elizabeth (48) and Anne-Laurence (32), led all point-scorers, while Shamira Robles (20), Kayla Clark (15), Bulou Mataitoga (7), Hilaria Lymas (5), Domonique Cammock (5) and Bridget Kahele (5) contributed to the championship campaign.
“They really work well together,” Efthimiou said of the Harveys. “We try a lot of combinations, and they had been begging me to let them play next to each other, even in 15s. I finally gave in, and clearly it worked out. They’re good kids, they train hard, and they want to learn.”
The freshmen sisters are focused on their studies but international opportunities have already presented themselves. For example, Elizabeth helped the Canada U20 7s team to a silver medal at the 2015 Youth Commonwealth Games in Samoa.
Clark also showed why she was added to the USA age-grade player pool.
“When she first got here, she was just a big kid who could run people over,” Efthimiou said. “She’s worked on her fitness, her skills are impressive, and now she’s moved from prop/lock to the loose forwards. I definitely think she’s one to watch, and she’s extremely passionate about the game.”
Efthimiou feels that sophomores Kahele and Robles have potential to play at higher levels as well, and considers his role in helping players achieve those aspirations a primary objective as coach.
The rest of the spring will feature 7s. There will be one more warm-up tournament before the NCAA varsity 7s circuit kicks off. All of the participants are complying to NCAA regulations that dictate everything from how long a season can last (132 days) to recruitment restrictions. While there have been some growing pains for programs, Efthimiou sees the value in leveling the playing field.
“It can be difficult for some of us who haven’t been exposed to it before, but essentially, the school’s compliance department takes over,” Efthimiou said. “I bug them everyday, sometimes multiple times per day. They handicap you in some way, but in other ways, it forces the school to provide much more support than before. For instance, if you’re playing on a field that isn’t compliant, then you have to move to another field that’s better.
“For us, as we watched Army and Quinnipiac commit, the question became who was left to play,” the coach added. “I was skeptical at first, but the school couldn’t wait to go NCAA because it’s easier for them to manage.”
AIC and the rest of the varsity teams that are NCAA compliant won’t be able to compete in the USA Rugby 7s championship or the USA Sevens Women’s CRC, since those events fall outside of the season date range. The NCAA tournament will name a champion on April 30-May 1 at Army West Point.
In the meantime, AIC is on spring break, and probably enjoying vacation a little better with an LVI title in their kit bags.