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Belmont Shore Crowned HS Club 15s Champ

Belmont Shore rugby

If Belmont Shore‘s season had ended in December 2023 with the tour to New Zealand, it would have been a considered a successful rugby year. If it had ended after multiple 15s wins against established teams from NorCal and Canada, or after its U15 and U18 SoCal Youth Rugby (SCYR) 7s championships — even better. But Belmont Shore supersized its 2023-24 season and pushed for a Girls’ High School Club 15s National Championship, and that’s the triumphant cap on an exceptional year. [lead photo: Jackie Finlan / TRB]

RELATED: More HS Club 15s Nationals Photos

Belmont Shore competed at high school club 15s nationals in 2018, but that was before the current coaching staff and player group were involved in that age grade. Back then, the players who form the core of today’s U18 team were 10- and 11-year-olds, and they were competing Belmont Shore’s first girls’ U14 7s team. A handful of current players have been together since the U8s, so there is some deep rugby IQ on this squad, just not a lot of 15s experience.

 

Belmont Shore rugby

Flyhalf Sydney-Rae Lolesio-Pua / Photo: Jackie Finlan

It’s not Belmont Shore’s fault, though. For the girls’ game, 15s has slowly disappeared from Southern California and SCYR no longer offers the traditional version of the sport for high schoolers. The Whales leaned into 7s, winning titles around the country, and then this past December took its game to New Zealand for the Global Youth 7s. Coaches Robert Pahulu and Ray Pua talked about the impact of that international trip and how facing U18 national teams changed the players’ expectations for themselves. It was an important experience in and of itself, but also useful as the team pivoted to the unknown — 15s.

The players had watched the 2023 high school club 15s tournament online and felt they could compete at that level. So that goal was added to the 2023-24 to-do list. The coaches got to work cobbling together a 15s schedule against NorCal teams (3), touring Canadian schools (2), and the new San Diego Selects Academy. The Whales won all of their matches, including two January games against SacPAL Amazons and San Mateo Wolverines, bolstering their resume for nationals.

 

Belmont Shore rugby

Photo: Jackie Finlan/TRB

When the team arrived in Madison, Wis., for the May 17-18 high school club event, there was a ton of intrigue surrounding the SoCal side. The team had just won the U15 and U18 SCYR 7s championships, but how would they transition to 15s? Those questions were answered pretty quickly in the opening round of pool play, when Belmont Shore beat Morris 49-3. The vicious back line was the first aspect to impress, but it wasn’t just the speed and skill and absolute adventure that the backs possessed. They were mostly small in stature but truly fearless in contact, and boy did they hustle.

Belmont Shore had some size in the forwards, and they did their job well, carrying through the middle and sucking in the defense. No. 8 Lolua Tauanu’u and prop Renny Jennings-Faletoi were particularly effective, and the pack’s work, both carrying and in the set piece, set the foundation for open, opportunistic play in the backs.

 

Belmont Shore rugby

No. 8 Lolua Tauanu’u / Photo: Jackie Finlan/TRB

Two pool play games drew particular attention (see full results below). In a rematch of the 2023 national final, the reigning champion, Majestics, faced the SacPAL Amazons in round two. It was close at half, 24-12, and then the Utah powerhouse pulled away for a 55-17 win. That decision, along with its 27-7 win against Aspetuck, put the Majestics into the final.

The second finalist spot came down to United and Belmont Shore, as both teams had won their openers (United beat Morris 29-5). United, which has a lot of young talent in the ranks, held a 12-7 lead at halftime and nearly extended the point differential in the second half with a dive-over try. But it was a double move, and Belmont Shore responded almost immediately from that penalty, and that was the turning point. Scrumhalf Khalea Pahulu and fullback Nalu Liufau had great chat throughout the match, with uplifting messages to teammates and inspiring performances on the pitch. Belmont Shore scored back-to-back tries for the 19-12 comeback win. The confidence flowed.

At noon on Saturday, May 18, the Wisconsin Rugby Sports Complex stands filled in for the final. The Majestics and Belmont Shore know each other from 7s, but this showcase had a different weight. The Utah side went up first, turning a turnover into an offloading, looping try in the corner: 5-0 courtesy of wing Line Hola.

 

Belmont Shore rugby

Fullback Nalu Liufau / Photo: Jackie Finlan/TRB

Belmont Shore started to settle into its game — a lovely combination of speed, creativity and fearlessness on both attack and defense. A try in the corner tied it up and then with 15 minutes left in the first half, a solid lineout moved wide to where the backs were stacking and building the overload. Fullback Liufau inserted and just burst through the defense for the try. Outside center Nila Lolesio-Pua (lead photo) hit the conversion for the 12-5 lead.

All of the Whales’ tries came through the backs, but only after the solid work of the forwards committed the Majestics up front. Halfbacks Pahulu and attacking flyhalf Sydney-Rae Lolesio-Pua did a great job moving the ball away from contact and releasing the exceptional speed in the back line for finishing moves.

Belmont Shore added two more tries before the break. It became 17-5 after an Allison Honeycutt breakaway put the team in attacking territory. The ball eventually moved wide and nice interplay between Sydney-Rae Lolesio-Pua, Liufau and Pulu — all offloading out of contact through a fractured defense — put the fullback into the try zone for the score.

 

Belmont Shore rugby

Scrumhalf Khalea Pahulu / Photo: Jackie Finlan/TRB

The first half had expired but the Whales were attacking inside the Majestics’ 22 and wanted one more score before the break. Phase after phase were punctuated by big forward crashes into a resolute defense, but penalties helped keep the drive alive. Finally, Sydney-Rae Loselio-Pua switched fields and the ball whipped wide to Hola for the try: 22-5 into the break.

The Majestics knocked on the opening kickoff, and the subsequent scrum ball moved wide to Ula Pula. The wing planted a fend for the quick try, 27-5. The death knell was a Majestics dropped pass in the Whales’ end. Ula Pula scooped it up on the hop and immediately returned it for try. Nila Lolesio-Pua hit the dropkick conversion for the 34-5 lead, essentially putting the game out of reach for the Majestics.

The Majestics were relentless on defense but Belmont Shore was just able to hold onto the ball and rally, rally, rally. As one might expect from a national champion, the Majestics kept working and put two more tries on the board, but the game belonged to Belmont Shore: 34-15 the final.

It’s a been a massive year for Belmont Shore, and they’re still pretty young. Watch a quintet of players’ reactions to the team’s first high school club 15s national title:

 

 

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A post shared by Jackie Finlan (@therugbybreakdown)

HS CLUB 15S NATIONAL TOURNAMENT

DIVISION I POOL PLAY
Majestics 27-7 Aspetuck
Majestics 55-17 SacPAL
SacPAL 29-7 Aspetuck

Belmont Shore 49-3 Morris
Belmont Shore 19-12 United
United 29-5 Morris

DIVISION I FINALS
5th: Morris 31-12 Aspetuck
3rd: United 36-10 SacPAL Amazons
1st: Belmont Shore 32-15 Majestics

DIVISION II
Wolverines 85-0 SPASH
Wolverines 78-5 Chicago
Wolverines 34-17 Clayton
Clayton 40-5 Chicago
Clayton 55-10 SPASH
Chicago 42-7 SPASH

DIVISION II FINAL PLACES
1. San Mateo Wolverines
2. Clayton
3. Chicago
4. Stevens Point (SPASH)

Article Categories:
HIGH SCHOOL

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