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ARPTC Upgrades, Ops & Goals Expand

  • 22 Jul 2019

Little Rock is abuzz. There are approximately 50 senior, collegiate and high school players swarming the American Rugby Pro Training Center (ARPTC), and the National Development Academy (NDA) is well equipped to deliver a full-time experience to all of them. This year has seen a series of service upgrades and additional playing opportunities, both home and abroad, and consequently, players are arriving and leaving in better shape.

“The [top] team has a very high rugby IQ and playing really good 7s right now. And the developmental team is getting better and better,” ARPTC founder Julie McCoy said of the senior residents. “The quality of our 7s at this time – 6-8 weeks at the academy – is so much better than previous years, and that’s because we have full-time coaches whose job is to take care of business. It makes a big difference. I’m basically coaching coaches right now.”

When ARPTC launched in summer 2015, the coaching staff consisted of former Eagles looking to give back to the game, but they all had regular, full-time jobs. That has changed for the 2019 season, and ARPTC employs a full-time coaching staff that includes a performance analyst and physio. A dedicated staff allows the academy to upgrade all of its services, but not at the expense of the campers. In fact, residents receive $500 discounts for every year that they return to Little Rock.

In late March, the academy held an assembly to evaluate potential residents and communicate how their summer programs would likely evolve.

“The trial camp allowed us to assess talent and fitness of players before they arrive and are assigned to teams. We can offer different types of contracts and they can confirm whether they want to come or not,” McCoy said. “It improves transparency. We want them to know what they’re getting into. It allows players to say, ‘No,’ and not come, which is good. Because then they’re not miserable [when expectations don’t meet reality] and nor are we because we’re trying to make someone happy.”

As a result, the players themselves arrived to Little Rock better prepared mentally and physically. Multi-year veterans like Jess Wooden, Christina Swift (who “is at the top of her game,” per McCoy), Sophie Pyrz, Summer Harris Jones and Hallie Taufoou set the standard for the group, and the competition did well to challenge the squads. For the first Red River qualifier, the Berkeley All Blues and Rocky Mountain Magic made the trip to the Bloodfest 7s in Austin.

“Those were very competitive games,” McCoy reflected on the early-season test. “Berkeley beat our top team by a conversion in the final, so that shows parity. Life West barely beat them [in the Santa Barbara 7s semifinal]. [Berkeley 7s co-coach] Irene Gardner is doing some innovative things and we as coaches have to adapt.

“Sam Enari has an exciting, young program in Denver,” McCoy said of the Magic. “They also came here for a weekend. We trained with them, scrimmaged and had a group dinner. It was an immersive clinic for them.”

Cape Fear 7s, per usual, also fielded strong competition, especially with the introduction of the Armed Forces teams during knockout rounds. Army earned high praise from McCoy, who also heard very good things about the Marines. ARPTC uses Cape Fear as an opportunity to mix up the squads and place new challenges on the coaching staff and players. McCoy’s team advanced to the final against Scion, and the Sirens monopolized possession in the 19-0 title win.

“We reshuffled the deck to see if players could perform their roles with different people,” McCoy said. “We’re trying to put players in positions where it’s hard, and then give them the tools to help navigate through it and be successful. This is how you prepare for higher-level 7s.”

And that has been ARPTC’s goal from the get-go – to form that wedge between international rugby and the club level. It’s been imperative for players like Kelli Smith and Lindsay Mayo, who both won Next Olympic Hopeful, transferred to the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center (CVEATC), and then were released into the amorphous rugby landscape. Smith represented the USA Falcons while in SoCal and then moved to Little Rock last summer. Afterward, ARPTC coach Mere Baker and Smith relocated to Beantown for the WPL season, and then Baker’s network aligned Smith with Getxo in Spain for more rugby.

“Kelli Smith is playing out of her mind. She’s playing better than I’ve ever seen her play,” McCoy said. “She still has work to do – like we all do – but she’s really elevated her game, especially on the attack side.”

Mayo is mimicking Smith’s path, and Baker’s connections set up the former NCAA soccer player in Ireland before she moved to Arkansas in May. Raleigh wing Jaz Gray is also at ARPTC, having impressed on the USA Falcons and trained at Chula Vista this year. The trio are all in Little Rock per USA Rugby’s direction.

“We’re grateful that Chris Brown and Emilie Bydwell are letting us help their players,” McCoy said. “They’re here for more specific, one-on-one coaching – more than the national team coaches have time for. We’re able to teach 7s to new people and feel fortunate that we’ve been entrusted to do that.”

The thanks goes both ways. After the second Red River qualifier in Houston, ARPTC sent a team directly to the CVEATC. There, alongside the San Diego Surfers, they scrimmaged the USA 7s team as it prepared for the Pan-American Games in Peru.

This comprehensive summer has, as one might expect, seen its share of breakouts, including Chloe Jex and Demi Allen. Jex first drew attention with Kansas State, scoring a crazy amount of tries from No. 8 senior year. After a season with the KC Jazz, Jex aligned with the D.C. Furies and was equally impressive during the WPL at lock.

“[USA 15s head coach] Rob Cain needs to take a serious look at her,” McCoy said. “She is a physical specimen, easy to coach, smart and has really taken the opportunity and gone forward. She got the opportunity to play in Chula; that’s how much she’s improved since she got here.”

Seventeen-year-old Allen hails from McCoy’s home state and the Fayetteville native will move to Lindenwood University in the fall.

“She was the only girl who practiced with the high school boys up there and then she’d travel to Tulsa to play with Broken Arrow,” McCoy said. “Her mom called me about the high school camp and I said, ‘I’ll do you one better. If we get her a waiver, we can bring her here all summer [for the senior residency].’

“She is going to be a great player. She is really stepping out,” the coach continued. “In the next 3-4 years, you’re going to know that name.”

As referenced, ARPTC has expanded into the high school realm, hosting its first three-week residency for teenagers. The original intent was to prepare two teams for the North American Invitational 7s in Salt Lake City, as the pinnacle of the camp. But after some issues with four foreign-based players – who attended camp despite the ineligibility for the NAI 7s – and players who had already committed to other Utah-bound teams, there will be one ARPTC team in the stellar competition.

“We don’t care who you play for; we don’t own players,” McCoy echoed a similar sentiment regarding senior alumnae, indicating that ARPTC isn’t club-building. “They can train here and play for other teams.”

Farrah Douglas and Josie Ziluca are the primary 7s coaches, and then weekly coaches work in, like former USA 7s Eagle Lindsay Stephenson, who is in town this week. Players interact with the senior residents through a big sister-little sister setup and mingled at a minor league baseball game, mixed-squad touch, BBQs, and more recreational and scrimmaging opportunities. This weekend will be a festival of sorts, with more exhibition games that Jill Potter will referee and Martha Daines, USA Rugby’s Girls High School All-American director, will scout.

The high schoolers will head home from Salt Lake City, and then the following weekend is club 7s nationals in Kansas City, Mo. ARPTC has secured both Red River seeds, even with one more qualifier to go (Houston Athletic is the only other competitor and standings points have ruled it out of nationals).

“Nationals is nationals. It used to be all we had,” McCoy regarded the Aug. 10-11 tournament in respect to the NDA’s overall goals. “That was basically the best 7s we could play in the USA. It’s why the academies would go there; it’s why ARPTC did. … But in terms of what we’re trying to do overall, it’s just one opportunity.”

The opportunity to play against the Pan-Am team was big, and so is being selected to the National Development Invitational Tournament (NDIT), which ARPTC is hosting the weekend after nationals. The NDIT is a prime venue for national team selectors to view talent and consider USA 7s contracts, especially in the final run-up to the 2020 Olympic Games. Brown and staff will be in attendance and also host a clinic for attendees.

“Then you add the other caveat: Once you come to the full-time environment here, then you’re eligible to go on international tours for us,” McCoy reflected on 2019 trips to Las Vegas and Ireland and the upcoming tour to Barbados. “And we pick up that dime. You don’t pay at all.

“It’s like a series,” McCoy considered ARPTC’s calendar as a whole. “The top internationals have their own series and play however tournaments a year. So how do we replicate that one level below? You create it. Because it’s not there for you in the United States.”

McCoy acknowledges that, at first mention, a summer in Little Rock doesn’t necessarily sell itself (“We’re not a destination,” McCoy said). But once potential residents – and teams interested in an immersive camp – consider the breadth of services, amenities and playing opportunities of the full-time environment, offered in a low-cost area of the country, the investment makes sense. It helps that the personnel driving the NDA adopt a “how can we help” posture that keeps players at its focus.

Looking for more insight into club 7s nationals? Click here.


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