The Carmel girls’ high school rugby team was in a precarious position in summer 2020, as the Greyhounds’ head coach was relocating to Oregon and there were just seven players readying for the impending fall. But then Kelly Romano stepped into the position and not only provided a crucial link between the junior high team and the high schoolers, but also stoked the enthusiasm that would lead to Carmel’s first stand-alone 15s team in years. Last Saturday, the Greyhounds won their first-ever Rugby Indiana Girls’ High School Fall 7s Championship, defeating reigning champion Chargers 24-22 in the title bout.
Romano has been involved with Carmel youth rugby, tracking players’ trajectory from 2nd grade and flag rugby (“When the ball is as big as they are,” the coach laughed) until 8th grade, when boys and girls are separated into tackle leagues.
“If I was going to prepare these girls from 2nd to 8th grade, then I wanted to hand them off to a solid high school program,” Romano said of the decision to take over the high school team.
Romano started recruiting via TikTok and Instagram, and also held “try rugby” nights to engage teenagers who were hungering for some activity and human connection during the pandemic.
“I’ve never had someone try rugby who didn’t fall in love with it and I hope I’m never proved wrong,” Romano said.
In fall 2020, Rugby Indiana held a touch 7s season to abide by Covid-19 regulations and still offer a competition to members. Carmel committed, as did the Chargers, Noblesville and occasionally southern Michigan’s Sparta-Rock.
“That’s when the girls really started to enjoy rugby culture,” Romano said. “And then over the winter we did Crossfit together and other team-building events. They were telling their friends, ‘You’ve got to try rugby,’ and it just caught fire.
“I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work with these humans, who just bring all of these people they know to the sport,” the coach lauded the players’ efforts. “They accept everyone. ‘Listen, it’s cool if you don’t know anything about rugby. We don’t care. We’ll teach you everything.’”
Traditionally, Carmel has combined with neighboring towns or low-number teams for the spring 15s season, but by 2021, the Greyhounds had for the first time in many years enough to roster their own team.
“They’ve always wanted to have a stand-alone team, but they were so used to merging,” Romano explained the status quo. “They just didn’t have the culture created for the girls. Carmel has a strong boys’ team as part of our club that’s won states in 2017, 2021. They’ve always been really strong and had depth, but there wasn’t much attention paid to the girls. So that was a huge goal of mine when I came on.”
Not all of the teams in Indiana were experiencing growth during the pandemic, so the spring 15s season had yet to return to its previous shape. Nonetheless, Carmel allowed just 35 points all season but missed out on the final after a single-digit loss to the Chargers in the semifinals.
But now Carmel had some momentum and the team remained active in the summer. The Greyhounds played some all-star 15s against visiting Wisconsin and Indy Speed. Players attended camps, like those held by USA U23 head coach Ricardo Ramirez and Olympian Jill Potter, as well as Aquinas College head coach Laura Miller, who educated players on the opportunities in college rugby. And training sessions raged on.
“They have really good foundational skills,” Romano said of the impact. “They have outstanding passes and have that beautiful follow-through with the hands, and they do it moving and don’t stop to catch to the ball. Rucks are low. We spend a lot of time in the scrum position and understanding where are bodies need to be. I’m always telling them, ‘This isn’t for TikTok, girls. Get those butts down!’ Wrapping, too. When we scrimmage each other, anything that is a wrap above the waist is considered a high tackle and I call a penalty. Same with scoring a try – if the entire team isn’t inside the 22, then it’s no try. You have to follow your pass, follow in support, and stay on your toes, not your heels.”
Thirty players signed on for the fall 7s season. Two students hail from outside of Carmel High School, and both come from schools that do not host rugby teams. Most of the team had played touch 7s and/or spring 15s, but only three members had actually played in a competitive, contact 7s season before. Junior Celia Watson and senior Taylor Whitlow provided solid leadership as captains.
“Celia is a phenomenal athlete. Very versatile, fast, can tackle,” Romano said of the junior who moved to Carmel after her family was unable to return to Brazil during the pandemic. “She is also an excellent leader. She’s always willing to lead stretches or talk to new players and take them aside to show them how to pass. It’s really cool to see how excited she is for more players to try rugby and share in the love of the sport. I always tell them, ‘Leaders create leaders,’ and they do.
“Taylor isn’t as vocal and that’s what I love about her,” the coach said of the senior. “She’s not one of those kids who likes the attention, but she’s always encouraging people to try rugby. She texts and checks in with players. She blends in in a good way and it’s because of her that players have confidence.”
Rugby Indiana provided a four-week season where no stats (wins/losses) were tracked during the first three rounds. Romano mostly supported the friendly nature of the season; however, she did note the value of seedings setting up a final tournament.
“It was cool to put some newer players with some seasoned players on the A and B sides, so that way you had people with 15s experience making sure that when you’re on offense, you’re on a 45, and when you’re on defense, you’re flat and going up,” Romano said. “It was cool to play with rosters and [the game outcomes] didn’t matter. One weekend I can have a true A side, and then it’s like confet
ti. … You’re seeing where the strengths are.”
Romano prioritizes coaching the rugby player, not the forward or the back, so on future teams they’ll always be an asset no matter they play. Everyone learns every position, everyone learns to kick and lift in the lineout. During the fall 7s season, players rotated through different positions and learned how to move in different spaces.
Romano had a good feeling heading into the fall season and those premonitions only strengthened as skills and connections developed.
“It’s a special feel when you walk into that clubhouse,” Romano said. “Parents were saying, ‘I’ve never seen this many girls get along and be so open and caring for each other.’ I explained to them, ‘This is rugby.’”
But there were certainly nerves heading into round four of the season, the championship event. Romano reached out to USA Eagle Kris Thomas, and she told the Olympian about her team and their championship hopes. Thomas then sent a huge box of her training gear to Carmel, so much so that every player received a shirt or pair of shorts that belonged to the 7s and 15s Eagle.
“They were really channeling their inner Kris Thomas,” Romano said. “After the national anthem, it was, ‘These pants have seen the national anthem before,’ and ‘Kris Thomas made me run faster today!’ The fact that a higher-level player took time with the team, it made them feel special.”
With that special acknowledgement, combined with the duty the team felt toward its teammates, “It was the Feelings Olympics,” Romano laughed.
Elkhart hosted the Rugby Indiana Fall 7s Championship at the Moose Rugby Grounds. Four teams were divided into two pools, and Carmel went undefeated through its group.
“I noticed a lot of good fluidity throughout the day,” Romano said. “They were assessing the breakdown well, too, and knew when to sweep through it, poach and move the ball to the wing; and when to hold strong in the rucks. Our scrumhalf, Chloe de Leon, has outstanding rugby IQ. She breathes rugby, watches film, reads books, and she did a great job Saturday.”
The Chargers won their pool as well, setting up a rematch of the 2021 spring 15s final – a pairing for which Carmel was hoping. The Greyhounds missed out on the final after a 10-7 semifinal lost to the Chargers, who went on to beat North Central 32-0 in the title match.
“The Friday night before the championship, we met at the clubhouse to hand out Thomas’ things, and I let my seniors stand up and give speeches,” Romano said. “It was, ‘I don’t want to make that car ride home from Elkhart like last time. They had their time, now it’s ours.’”
Romano described a hard-nosed, back-and-forth final.
“The type where there’s a breakdown, a 2-3-meter run, and then another breakdown,” the coach said. “Everyone was working really hard.”
Watson and senior Lauren Reddington were strong on attack, but there was some vulnerability on the wing, and the Chargers were able to take advantage out wide for breaks. When freshman Arielle Noussa Fotso subbed in, she shored up the sideline defense.
“My team has excellent foundational skills,” Romano compared the finalists. “We’re low in the rucks and tackles, and confident with our team speed. And everyone can kick and take conversions. In fact, my best kicker is our hooker. The Chargers have really good rugby IQ … and they capitalized on our mistakes. They have good game understanding and situational awareness. We definitely elevate each other by the level of play we provide each other.”
At one point, Carmel was awarded a penalty try, and no one but the referee accounted for the automatic conversion that is added to the five-point score. So when the whistle sounded, the teams approached the ref to inquire about overtime. The ref then explained that Carmel was actually ahead by two, 24-22, and the game was over.
“I started screaming,” Romano recounted her reaction.
And the celebrations followed. There were lots of hugs and photos with the trophy, but Romano was most impressed by the compliments teammates paid each other. They highlighted each other’s successes and how those individual wins propelled a team win.
“We have a Hard Hat award. It’s that ‘we before me’ mentality,” Romano said. “You’re not looking for the best player but the best teammate, and the players decide who gets that award. Again, it’s leaders creating leaders. The girls are really trying and working for each other, and they’re so excited to see other girls receive it. The words they use to describe each other, you can tell they love their teammates.”
Reddington earned the championship Hard Hat award and she took home a Thomas training jacket as memorabilia.
“It was so fitting because she was the first Hard Hat winner of the season,” Romano said. “She’s a true team player.”
It was a winning day for the Carroll B side, too. All but the Chargers B side dropped out of the tournament, and Carroll won two of three contests against them. Westfield finished third overall, defeating North Central 22-21.
Once the Feelings Olympics mellowed, the conversation turned to 15s, and players immediately started asking for next steps.
“Welcome to 15s! Your season has already started,” Romano responded. “They were asking when the 7th/8th graders start so they could start getting them excited for this.”
Generally, the players are asking for more. Romano has been named head coach of the new Carmel girls’ wrestling team, and the players have added that conditioning to their winter off-season. The team will continue to do Crossfit together and other foundational training, and bring the depth it’s developed this past year to 15s.
But the impact of a few successful seasons has already changed the players’ desire to do more. Romano noted a continual hunger for more higher-level opportunities. They’re more educated about the opportunities in college, and parents are helping momentum by getting involved, taking touch judge courses so they can help along the sideline, and doing their own research to understand why their daughter is being referred to as a “hooker.” It’s an all-around deeper investment that will support further growth, extended rugby careers, and life-long friends.