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Chicago Lions Take Lone MW Seed to Nationals

  • 25 Jul 2019

The summer 7s season has been one of adjustment for the Chicago Lions. The Midwest lost its second seed to the USA Rugby Club 7s National Championship, thus intensifying the regional series and final tournament. Internally, the Lions needed time to build chemistry with some new personnel and leadership structure, but it all came together in time for a Midwest title and return bid to nationals (Aug. 10-11, Kansas City, Mo.).

RELATED: Who else has qualified for club 7s nationals?

Four important players with nationals experience – Lauren Ebeling, Sarah Kish, Katie Lank, Azania Watene – did not return this season, and the coaching staff of Jeremy Nash, Dave Clancy and new addition Matt Wagner considered a different approach to leadership this summer. Instead of naming a single captain, the staff empowered a three-person leadership group in Betty Nguyen, Rose DiBalsamo and Kelley Hirt, all of whom returned from last year’s nationals.

Photo: Amy Kish

“From a coaching standpoint, building trust with a new leadership group took some time, mostly because we lost Sarah Kish, who in addition to being one of our top players, had been captain of the team since its inception,” Nash explained. “Rose had been vice captain for the past two years, but she totally bought into the leadership group concept, and she did a phenomenal job of making the group leadership not just work, but excel.”

Returners Brittany O’Dell and Megan Loomis were also important to building chemistry, as younger and newer players worked into the Lions squad.

“We welcomed an awesome new talent to the group in Amanda Berta,” Nash praised the Penn State grad who has spent time in Chula Vista, “and this year has been a renaissance for Devon Gold, who has raised the level of her game, particularly on defense.

Photo: Amy Kish

“We have a whole group of younger players who have also pushed the more senior players – Mariah Martinez, Scout Muzikowski, Sophia Karris and Benny Hershik – which has been a huge benefit,” the coach added.

The bonding process took time. Meanwhile, the Midwest 7s series began with new vigor.

“The competition this year reflected a sense of urgency for every team in the Midwest, knowing that only the top team would qualify to compete in Kansas City,” Nash referenced the loss of the Midwest’s second seed to nationals. “Early on in the year, [Chicago] North Shore not only pushed us but twice defeated us in the tournament finals. … [F]ull credit to North Shore. They had a game plan that they executed, bringing some 15s tactics to the 7s pitch.”

Regrettably, the Lions lost Nguyen to injury in the first game of the first Midwest qualifier, and while that’s a big loss on the pitch, the team regrouped and focused on incremental gains.

Photo: Amy Kish

“What makes this group special more than anything is the demonstrated ability to improve from game to game, tournament to tournament,” Nash praised. “It took us until the third qualifier to start to gel as a unit, but a lot of credit goes to the leadership group for working with the coaching staff and the players.”

North Shore won the first two Midwest 7s series qualifiers, and then the Lions won the third, facing Legacy Rugby Academy in the title match.

“When we did overcome [North Shore] in the semis of the third qualifier, it felt like we had turned a corner, because we beat them by forcing them to play our style, instead of us trying to play their game,” Nash recalled.

“An up-and-coming team that really challenged us this season was the Cleveland Rugby Coalition, a young team brimming with talent, and when they gel, they will be a force to contend with,” the coach continued. “Despite their finishing third [in the Midwest], they are the team we will have to be watching for going forward and were probably the second-best team in the Midwest this summer.”

Photo: Amy Kish

The Midwest uses its 7s series to seed the championship tournament, which occurred last weekend in Cincinnati. The Lions outscored opponents 110-5 and beat North Shore 28-5 in the title match. DiBalsamo was named championship MVP, a reward that could easily be applied to the season, given the elevation of her game and team leadership.

“What the coaching staff was most proud of was the defensive effort that didn’t concede a try until the final, and then responded to that try with two more of their own,” Nash commended the team. “We felt like winning the Midwest championship final 28-5 was a good indication of how our team stands in the Midwest.”

Nash sees a team that, after overcoming some early-season hurdles, is just starting to play to its potential. The Lions played well at the Midwest championship but the coach knows there’s another level of performance poised to unveil.

Photo: Amy Kish

“All year long we have talked about checking boxes, keeping our focus on the immediate goal – whether that is mastering a tactic or skill in our weekly skills sessions or team trainings, or winning one pool game at a time,” the coach explained. “We plan on bringing that approach to nationals, the idea that if we have a laser-like focus on the process, and everyone individually doing their job, the team results will reflect our effort and execution.”

Last year, the Lions went 3-3 at nationals and finished 13th overall.

“Our goal for nationals every year is to make it to the Cup quarterfinals on day two and go out and compete,” Nash concluded, “but the expectation is that we will continue to check the boxes, bring each other up with positive reinforcement, and above all else, have fun while we are doing it.”

The 16-team field for the club 7s national championship will be confirmed by end of day Saturday, when the Pacific North names its three representatives to Kansas City, Mo. Stay tuned.

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