The most dominating performance at the NAI 7s came from the Belmont Shore, which posted six shutouts en route to the girls’ U14 title. At first glance, the trophy is a symbol of a meteoric rise for the Southern California program, but its roots are found in the years-long bond that started forming in the U8 ranks.
Belmont Shore U14 head coach John Pua and assistant coach Rob Pahulu first took interest in the program due to the involvement of their daughters, Nila Lolesio-Pua and Khalea Pahulu, respectively. The girls are part of a quintet that started playing together in Belmont Shore’s U8s and remained together through the U10s and U12s, all co-ed. Then just prior to the 2019 SoCal season, Tri-City Thunder suggested an all-girl U14 7s match as a first run-out. The smaller, younger Lady Whales had a go, turned it on, and won.
“That’s when I was like, ‘Oh! Girls rugby,” Pahulu recalled his a-ha moment.
The coaches saw potential and embraced it, and officially formed a U14 7s team. The team turned to the Las Vegas Invitational and took its 10- and 11-year-olds to the international competition.
“The expectations with the girls started with their mentality. It wasn’t, ‘Go and win,’” Pua said. “We told the kids, ‘This is our opportunity to gel and get chemistry and just play to compete.’ We won one game, and that led into another and another, and the coaches were looking at each other like, ‘I think we’ve got something here.’”
“We all surprised each other,” Pahulu said as Belmont Shore won the LVI U14 trophy. “We were nervous because we were so young and small compared to all these bigger teams, and the coaches weren’t sure how they’d react. But it was their rugby IQ that really beat everything else. They’re just so far ahead of the game.”
The U12s who made the age cutoff played up in the SoCal U15s, and along the way, Belmont Shore picked up more players who fit into this well synced squad. The Lady Whales then signed on for the NAI 7s in Salt Lake City, and took preparation seriously, as they once again would be fielding a squad with players a couple of years younger than its competition.
“They were more confident in their ability,” Pua said of the effect of winning the LVI, “but coach and I worked really hard in preparing these girls mentally and physically for Utah. We knew about the weather and elevation and that it’d be affective. We made them wear two pure cotton t-shirts – and sometimes they’d wear a sweater on top of that as their own preference – so they could get used to the heat, and forced them to hydrate so it became a habit.”
“The workouts were intense,” Pahulu added. “We trained them alongside the U14 boys, as far as fitness and conditioning were concerned, and kept the same level.
“And that’s another thing,” Pahulu continued. “Their IQ is what makes them special, but they’ve been playing together so long and with the boys. Boys take on the game a little faster because of [comfort with] the contact area, but the girls had no choice but to be at the same level with them.”
“They have the mindset of: We can do it, too, if the boys can do it,” Pua supported. “There’s that extra drive and it shows in their play.”
NAI 7s squad
Belmont Shore crushed it on day one, defeating Rhinos Rugby Academy, Rugby Texas HP and Little Lady Wasps by a combined 146-0.
“In every game besides the championship, the girls set the tempo for how they wanted it to be played,” Pahulu said. “They were so dominant, and it’s because they went in mentally prepared for how they were going to shut the game up and end it.”
In the middle of it all was Gianna Diaz, who captained the team from flyhalf.
“We gave her that responsibility to lead and she stepped up. She was always encouraging the team,” Pua praised. “She’s the one who pulls the strings and makes the calls. She’s out there visualizing and planning what should happen next.”
Two more shutouts followed on day two – 43-0 against the Wasps and 20-0 against the Drayton Valley – to secure a spot in the final. On the other side of the bracket, the Celtic Barbarians had also gone undefeated, defeating the Arizona Bobcats twice, East High, Drayton Valley and Rugby Texas en route to the title match. Belmont Shore hadn’t scouted the North American select side, as it was busy supporting the other club teams when not playing.
“Mad respect to the Celtic Barbarians; they were pretty good,” Pahulu said. “It almost looked like we were looking at our set of girls.”
“We played the first three minutes of the game on defense. ‘We’ve found our match,’” Pua recalled the final. “But every time the ball came out, they shot up. It’s what we always tell them, ‘You’ve got to act like piranhas. Move quick and bite.’”
Belmont Shore played with composure, a pleasant outcome considering the lack of time on defense in the lead-up to the final.
“The two main people who really set up our defense and are strong influences are coach Rob’s daughter, Khalea, and captain Gianna. That’s why they’re in the middle,” Pua said. “Khalea is one of the strongest impact tacklers on the team. She sets the tone, and once she’s locked in, it inspires the other girls to step up as well.”
Belmont Shore was rewarded with a turnover and turned that first possession into a try. There were still two minutes to play in the first half, when lightning was spotted a mile away. The game took its requisite break but then the tournament informed the teams the remainder of the final could not be played. The score stood, and Belmont Shore won the final 5-0 over the Celtic Barbarians.
Gianna Diaz and Siriah Ibarra interview with FloRugby
“When the call was made, it was: This could’ve gone either way – us or them,” Pahulu said. “I’ll take the win, and anyone would, but I really would have preferred the whole game to be played. Both sides deserved that much especially getting to the final.”
“It was a disappointment to end that way, it definitely was,” Pua said. “But I really felt that the girls were confident all around. Everything about their game, just watching them on defense and not even looking like they were tired – they were ready. I had a good feeling that had the full game been played, they would have won.”
But there were too many good things to come out of the trip to Utah to wallow in the disappointment for very long. The tour not only built momentum for the players in Salt Lake City but also for the future of the program.
“The girls really opened up to each other this time. They built a sisterhood, and even though the season’s over, they’ll stay in touch because of the experience in Utah,” Pua said. “Before the championship game they had us choked up, almost crying. Everyone opened up and was trying to encourage each other before the game.”
“So many tears! Right before the championship game,” Pahulu laughed with mock disbelief.
“I was really proud of that moment though,” Pua countered. “It showed that these girls have really bonded and a strong sisterhood had formed. That’s another reason why I felt confident that they got this [final]. They had each other’s backs.”
Pua started receiving player inquiries once word of the U14s’ success made it back home, and those numbers will pile onto the 20+ players already involved at this age grade. Pahulu indicated that the class below the current one features close to 10 players who have been playing together in the co-ed ranks, and they’ll be aging out soon. Belmont Shore also has a U18 program, one that has featured at the National Invitational Tournament in the recent past, and so these players have the opportunity for many more years of rugby.
“Everyone’s still on a high from Utah. My daughter’s tired of hearing if from me,” Pahulu said.
More accurately, however, the trip and win in Utah are something these players and coaches will never forget.
BELMONT SHORE U14s
Alison Boren – wing
Audrey Cornelius – scrumhalf
Gianna Diaz – captain, flyhalf
Jean Gaines – prop
Sariah Ibarra – co-captain, center
Nila Lolesio-Pua – prop
Sydney Rae Lolesio-Pua – scrumhalf
Khalea Pahulu – hooker
Loulua Tauanu’u – prop
Mercey Tulifau – prop