Despite six consecutive years as Minnesota’s state champion, Armstrong did not enter the spring season as the clear favorite for the 2016 title. Armstrong lost to an ever-strengthening North Suburban, a deep Hopkins/Orono combination squad, and Minnetonka in the final week of the regular season. But Armstrong coach Jimmy Hanson bred a patient, growth-driven attitude is his young team, and the payout was realized when it mattered most: during the team’s seventh-straight state championship run.
“There is always a special joy in being the underdog,” Hanson confessed. “Entering the post-season as the fourth seed was a new experience for us. It gave us a new source of motivation. I saw our team grow more in those final challenging weeks than I’ve ever seen before, maybe even over an entire season. These kids did what it took, and they are all extremely proud of each other and their effort. I will admit that the final whistle this time was a bit more satisfying than it has been in a while.”
Sixteen of Armstrong’s 26 players were in their first season of rugby, and so the spring focused on developing contact skills a “my effort will determine my outcomes” mentality, according to Hanson. Captains Amber Brevig, Haylee Thull and Renee Gonzalez were instrumental in maintaining a positive, productive atmosphere as the team weathered injuries, commitment issues, position swaps and three regular-season losses.
Armstrong just needed more field time and game experience, so the team played every scrimmage it could land and joined the 7s league that runs concurrently to the 15s league.
“I think the opportunity to play 7s against some other fresh competition allowed our new kids the time and space to get a feel for the game,” Hanson explained. “We were hoping that the extra minutes we were giving our kids would help us close the experience gap that led to our initial losses.”
Freshman fullback Rainey Baker made a huge impact and was voted Back of the Year by her teammates. Diana Tapia, who joined the Minnesota Tundra last fall, was voted Rookie of the Year for her inspirational play, work rate and encouraging attitude. Sophomore flanker Kpenkai Carter continued to stand out.
“She is the hardest-hitting kid I’ve ever seen, and it consistently took three or more people to slow her down,” Hanson praised. “If she is coming for you, I suggest you get rid of the ball.”
The team was especially happy to have Brevig back in working order. A four-year member of the team, the captain had never played in a state championship due to knee injuries.
“Amber returned to the field without missing a beat,” Hanson said of the senior’s mid-March return. “We played a king-of-the-hill-style rucking game at practice, and Amber never actually lost a single round. We used Amber mostly as a flanker this season, but during some injury-plagued weeks she saw time at inside center and was phenomenal on defense.”
Interestingly, it was a 7s victory that fully unified the team. After some injuries healed and other extra-curricular commitments ended, all 26 players showed up for the final night of 7s. Everyone played at least one half.
“Seeing and feeling what it was like to have our entire team present and engaged was, I think, an inspiring moment for all of them,” the coach explained.
The top two teams – Hopkins/Orono and North Suburban – advanced directly to the state semifinals, while seeds three through six contested play-ins on May 25. Armstrong defeated Faribault by forfeit, while Minnetonka defeated Eagan/South River 73-7.
“We definitely were looking for redemption, but I wouldn’t say it was a particular loss we wanted to avenge, because we hadn’t been that concerned with winning or losing during the regular season,” Hanson described the team’s post-season mindset. “We simply wanted the kids to reclaim what it meant to pursue growth. We knew that if we did everything we could to prepare for this game and we put out a level of effort we could be proud of each day, then we’d reach our potential.”
Armstrong defeated Hopkins/Orono 39-22 in the state semifinals June 4, while North Suburban bettered Minnetonka 69-5.
“We knew our competition pretty well by the time we reached state, and we knew that individual athletes on the other teams would get frustrated if we were able to get and hold a lead,” Hanson explained. “We wanted to control the physical and emotional momentum. Defensively, we focused on being prepared for the scoring threats we knew we’d see. We knew if we could contain their individual styles of play, we could frustrate their offense enough for our own threats to outscore their counterparts.”
Brevig and Kpenkai were crucial difference-makers. The powerful flankers lined up between the centers and wings, and this set-up paved the way for mismatches and line-breaks. The team kept the ball moving and off of the ground, maintaining offensive space and momentum well. The flankers were also instrumental on defense, pressuring playmakers with big hits and shutting down the opposition’s momentum on attack.
The result was a 37-22 over North Suburban and a seventh-straight Minnesota state trophy. The road to the podium was longer and more arduous than years prior, but the reward was sweeter and will carry the underclassmen-driven club forward.