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Confident, Egoless Play Leads Atlantis to Podium

  • 08 Aug 2019

Photo: Aimee Jones Fearey

Atlantis kept its winning tradition alive and won both the U18 Elite and U16 divisions of the NAI 7s in Salt Lake City last week. With the win in Utah, Atlantis retained the North American High School 7s Series title, a fitting end to several U18 players who celebrated their final high school tour in the teal jersey.

Academies packed the U18 Elite division, but Atlantis bore the target on its back heading to Utah.

“A little bit of pressure and a lot of curiosity. Atlantis is a very well known entity, so it was known that every team was gunning for us,” Atlantis U18 coach Josie Ziluca described the team mindset into the tournament. “We were the only team in the U18 Elite division to have four games the first day. I was reluctant to tell the girls, but when I did they responded with, ‘Well, coach we’re the only team that can do it.’ … We were operating with confidence and without ego.”

That mix comes with experience, and Atlantis was deep in pressure-tested athletes. Tiyanna Hooker, who is heading to Lindenwood University this fall, and Harvard University commit Alex Pipkin took the lead.

“Pipkin has always been a smooth, intelligent player that monitors balancing emotions on the team,” Ziluca praised. “Hooker drew a lot of her knowledge of the game from past Atlantis tours but also from her season with New York this year. I’m excited to see her compete in the Club 7s National Championship. Just the year before she was watching me raise that trophy [with San Diego] overhead; perhaps it’s her turn.”

The coach described a depth of senior leadership, pointing to Camile White, Maddie Rose, Abby Fearey and Jordan Roe.

“Camile with her speed and relentlessness, Maddie with her evasive running, and Jordan with her cover tackles all proved to be important ingredients for our team’s success,” Ziluca added.

The coach called Madeleine Maurice and Emma Gamboa “pint-sized terrors,” who can keep pace with anyone on the wing and bring them to ground regardless of size disparity. Up-and-coming Sophia Linder dictates the contact area and given a little space can typically find the try zone; same with Sammy Stern, “a sneaky player,” who provides spark. Alex Wantlin again brought her superb kicking skills and superior work rate to the pitch. Ziluca called the Floridian “a creator, and she thrives on that.”

“Every player brought something to the table and with it all combined, the team became their own organism; organic in its movement and adaptability,” Ziluca surveyed the team as a whole. The tournament started against a larger Rhinos Academy team, but Atlantis found its footing for a 31-12 win. The team beat Rock Rugby Academy 53-5 and Rebel Rugby Academy 59-0, and split those wins with a 20-10 victory over a very physical Utah Rugby Academy.

That evening, the team regrouped with some film and turned to its U16 counterparts for inspiration.

Photo: Josie Ziluca

“During this tournament, the U18 and U16 girls were very connected,” Ziluca explained. “The U18s watched some of the younger girls’ games on the second day from the hotel, and they were simply in awe. The performances that the younger girls gave provided the senior players joy, knowing that the legacy of Atlantis was in good hands.”

In the knockout rounds, Atlantis shut out Rebel 43-0 in the semifinals, while Utah got past Rhinos 17-5 to advance to the final.

The teams unloaded the energy reserves for a thrilling, final-worthy contest, and Atlantis pulled through with a 19-12 win and repeat NAHS title.

“Those games could’ve gone either way, especially with Utah scoring one or two tries before we even scored one,” Ziluca considered both the pool play and final matches against the local side. “That just goes to show the character of the Atlantis girls. No matter the circumstance, we were able to look to the next thing and ask ourselves, ‘What’s next,’ and, ‘Can we play our best rugby in the next two minutes?’”

Atlantis and Utah Rugby Academy / Photo: Josie Ziluca

Nina Mason played her best rugby on the weekend and Ziluca pointed to the Doylestown player as the breakout performer this tour.

“She has gotten herself to the next level and it’s visible to all,” the coach lauded. “Her ability to read the attack and punch in on defense as well as her ability to read and manipulate the offenses has become unparalleled. She still has many levels to hit before reaching her true potential.”

Overall, Ziluca could not have been more proud of the team’s selfless play, to which she credited the championship trophy.

“Though we may have not been the most skilled or physically threatening team out there, the girls backed themselves and picked one another up time and time again,” Ziluca praised. “They played authentic rugby. The kind where the only MVP you can pick is the team as a whole. The understanding of ‘we’ over ‘me’ was engrained and executed. Anything is possible when there’s a singular determination amongst all, and no one cares who gets the credit.”

Photo: Aimee Jones Fearey

The U16s also had to contend with tough competition and ended the tournament 6-0 with a final 24-17 win over the Maui Warriors. “It was a clean sweep for the Atlantis girls,” Ziluca beamed. “Both teams walked away from Utah knowing that they impressed the other teams and coaches, the boys’ teams and coaches, and most importantly, themselves. The staff and players put ‘connection’ as a top priority and accepted nothing less than everything we had.”

Keep an eye on Ziluca, too, who has been very busy this summer and has some exciting prospects on the horizon. The San Diego resident is currently on Victoria Island with the Girls High School All-American (HSAA) during West camp and is TBD for the East camp at the end of the month. She was in Toronto in July with the Boys HSAAs, running S&C and also coaching, and hopes there are more opportunities with the boys in the future. Ziluca also shared coaching duties with Farrah Douglas during the first ARPTC high school residency, and will be taking the North American Lions to France this September.

Atlantis NAI7s #JosieZiluca

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