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Chicago Lions Win Midwest 7s Championship

  • 02 Aug 2021

Photo courtesy @MidwestRugbyUnion Facebook

The Chicago Lions won the Midwest Club 7s Championship in late July and did so with a thrilling, come-from-behind final against Chicago North Shore. The two Windy City teams are heading to the USA Club 7s National Championship on Aug. 14-15 in Tukwila, Wash.

RELATED: Chicago North Shore’s Adding the Joy Back In

“We allowed ourselves some space to get back into the swing of things,” Chicago Lions 7s head coach Jeremy Nash explained. “But overall, until Nationals was confirmed, our team goal that was/is pandemic-proof was to win the Midwest Championship, just as it is every summer, because we know when we check that box it means we will be moving on to compete with the best.”

Nash indicated that the team had solid numbers from the onset, even as masking requirements and unorthodox training sessions prevented a full return to “normal.”

“We are incredibly fortunate to have an incredible facility in the city, and more importantly a phenomenal administrative team effort to put together [Return to Play] protocols, and that allowed us to start training in May, much earlier than normal,” Nash thanked the club.

Nash noted many new faces in the group, meaning returners had to manage their own and newcomers’ transition to full-contact, Lions rugby.

Graphic courtesy @chicagolionsrugby Instagram

“Fortunately, our leadership brain trust of Kelley Hirt, Betty Nguyen, Rose DiBalasamo has been working together for a few years, and we added Kaity Kasper to the leadership group early on, which proved to be beneficial with so many new players,” Nash praised the veterans. “In addition, Sarah Berry and Rachel Grecky have answered the call-up to starter with efforts and performances worthy of the selection.

“We also had a teenager for the beginning of the summer, Mariah Norris-Johnson, who was a standout,” Nash lauded the Quinnipiac University commit, “and we sorely miss her since she transitioned to her collegiate 15s programming.”

The first two qualifiers occurred in Dayton (June 12) and Firehouse (June 26), and the Lions advanced to both title matches, but lost to North Shore on both occasions.

“We had to throw new players into the fire right away, and some of the vets had to grind through longer minutes as well as some forced versatility,” Nash tracked the beginning of the summer. “In the first month of the season, I am not sure we had a tournament where we rolled out the same starting seven consecutively more than once or twice. Ultimately, the challenges we faced early on have had a positive impact for us. We also got to look at players who otherwise might have not been as visible.”

But the team was able to build some consistency by the third series tournament – Legacy 7s in Brighton, Mich. To boot, ARPTC, a National Development Program that will feature in Tukwila, traveled north from Little Rock, Ark., and injected some fresh pressure into the field. The Lions beat North Shore 19-17 in the Cup semifinal before falling 24-5 to ARPTC in the championship.

Graphic courtesy @chicagolionsrugby Instagram

The Midwest championship was held July 24 at the Cincy 7s in Ohio, and six teams were divided into two pools.

“As coach, I really wanted to see our defensive structure continue to become more cohesive, and for us to capitalize on the effort we put in on the defensive side of the ball and create some easy scoring opportunities,” Nash recounted goals for the Midwest championship. “And the team delivered.”

The Lions posted three shutouts Legacy (27-0) and Dayton (40-0) in pool play, then 41-0 against Cincinnati in the semifinals, and Nash called out Meg Loomis and Grecky as standouts who organized the defense. Chicago North Shore went through pool play with a 24-0 win against Cleveland and then tied Cincinnati 15-15. The top seed advanced to the final after a 32-0 semifinal win against Legacy.

Graphic courtesy @chicagolionsrugby Instagram

The first half of the championship match evolved without a score. The teams then traded scores and as the game neared its end, North Shore led 7-5. The Lions had one more possession to make something happen, and started working from a penalty on its 22. As the ball worked down field, DiBalsamo took her chance and scored the winning try with no time on the clock: 10-7 the final.

“Over the past month and two tournaments, we were able to field the same 13 players for a tournament roster, and the starting seven has now had the opportunity to play 10-straight games together,” Nash included the Midwest championship games. “We lost to a very solid ARPTC side in one tournament final, and we won the Midwest championship in the other tournament final, so I do believe the team is beginning to hit their strides and play more cohesively.”

The Midwest title marked the Lions fourth-straight, and the women’s team will be joined at nationals by the Lions men, which also won the region’s top honors. USA Club Rugby was supposed to release the championship schedule on Aug. 1 but it is still pending. Stay tuned.

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