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Downingtown Reigns as PA 7s & 15s Champ

  • 28 May 2019

Photo: Brian Spotts

Downington enjoyed a stellar fall, winning the Pennsylvania 7s championship, and rolled that success into 2019 and the 15s season. After a sobering loss to Doylestown in league play, Downingtown regrouped for a redemptive championship weekend and second state title of the season.

Andrew Fell had served as head coach during the fall 7s season but hadn’t intended to stay on for 15s. But when former head coach Rich Bailey stepped back, Fell couldn’t resist picking up where the team left the fall.

“A lot of the girls were coming back, and even if we only had the returners, we’d have a really good starting 15,” Fell said. “Especially after the fall we had, it was tough leave them in the lurch. They’re just an incredible group.”

Leading the way were captains April Pagel and Natalie Hiller, who’ve been playing since fifth grade, “and make my job easy,” Fell praised. They oversee a group that includes lots of young, promising players, including two eighth graders – Olive Karam and Clare Czap – who worked their way onto the starting line. Karam is a wrestler who has known rugby through her older siblings, and Czap is a gymnast, who has a great grasp of her body’s capabilities.

“We didn’t see a mismatch because they were able to handle this level of competition well,” Fell said of the junior high schoolers in the varsity league. “They earned their positions over older and bigger girls.”

This year’s group also saw a surge in the number of forwards, which allowed players like Emma Rutkowski move from the front row – where she’s played the previous three years – to her more natural position at flanker.

“She is an absolute monster on the field,” Fell said. “She’s brutal off the side of the ruck, takes a punch for 60 meters through the thick of the defense. She got hurt early in the season and worked hard to get back. It was a boost of confidence for the other girls when she rejoined them on the field.”

Junior Alicia Djomani transferred from Rugby Ohio and after a quiet start put in MVP performances by season’s end.

Faith Morley / Photo: Brian Spotts

“She seemed a little intimidated at the beginning of season – maybe by who we had or the higher level we do play at and are capable of,” Fell said. “She’d have these amazing runs and tackle above her weight class, and by the end of season she was getting Player of the Match. She really came around for us and became a major part of the pie.”

Downingtown started out the league season well, traveled to D.C. Ruggerfest and finished second to Maryland state champion North Bay. Then came Doylestown, which lost its opening league game to Penn Legacy, but then rebounded.

“Doylestown turned out to be our best competition,” Fell said. “They had a rough start but then added players from PA United when they folded. … They beat up a lot of people, including us.”

When the teams met in the regular season, Doylestown made better use of the sloppy conditions to win 45-7.

Kat Storey / Photo: Brian Spotts

“It was weird. We had just finished second at Ruggerfest, but then one loss to Doylestown and everyone was in a funk. We weren’t sure where we going to go,” Fell said of the mood at the end of league play. “We had a bye week before states, and it was all about refreshing and remembering that we are good at what we do and getting that confidence back.”

The top-four teams advanced to the DI semifinals on May 18, and Downingtown lined up against Moon Area. The teams’ regular-season game had been cancelled due to storms in Pittsburgh, and Downingtown put down a 46-0 win. Audra Fabrizio put in a Player of the Match performance, scoring two tries, kicking 5/7 conversions and a penalty kick, and leading the way in terms of defense.

“They were flying after the Moon game. It was empowering,” Fell said of the turn-around. “They were so ecstatic in the team pictures that you would have thought they won the whole thing.”

Audra Fabrizio / Photo: Brian Spotts

Doylestown got some retribution with a two-point semifinal win over Penn Legacy, and met Downingtown the following day for the title match. While wet weather marked the teams’ first meeting, the championship match was played at 12:15 p.m. in stifling, 90-degree heat. No one was able to prepare for those conditions at this point in the season.

Doylestown had three players called up to the High School All-American 7s team, which was competing in the Next Gen 7s tournament in Canada the same weekend as the state championship. Nina Mason, Sophia Linder and Tiyanna Hooker are difference-makers, and the Dingos were at full strength – a fact that also bolstered spirits heading into the final.

Downingtown’s energy was up early and the team built a 12-0 lead before the Dragons responded for a 12-5 halftime split.

“Momentum was in their favor at the end of the first half. The girls were yelling at each other in the try zone and getting frustrated,” Fell said. “Honestly, we hit our wall sooner than Doylestown did, physically and conditioning wise. But having halftime to regroup from that really helped us focus. When Doylestown hit their wall in the second half, they didn’t have their moment to regroup.

“We learned in our games against North Bay and Doylestown that some players thought they had to do more than we needed to [when losing] and we’d get away from our systems,” the coach said of tactical focus. “I really tried to remind them that that didn’t work, so let’s stick to what we do, and we did.”

Captains and Players of the Match Hiller and Pagel led the way in terms of composure and consistency, Megan Gallagher stood out for her work rate across the weekend. Weather continued to dictate substitutions during the trying finale, and the game did devolve somewhat as players tapped the last of their energy reserves. Nevertheless, Downingtown kept pushing and was rewarded with five tries – two apiece from Pagel and Kat Storey and the final from Josie Silberman in the 31-7 win.

“Storey is a dynamic player and scored both tries in second half. She just gets the ball and has the ability to make people miss down the sideline and uses her speed to run past everyone,” Fell said. “But outside of that, it was a lot of grinding away. Everyone was tired and struggled to make a play happen or finish a run or get to where they needed to be. But they gutted it out as much as they could against a really tough team. It really was a team win.”

A flush of energy returned when the final whistle blew and it was time to celebrate. Downingtown won both the fall 7s and spring 15s state titles, which is not a common feat. The trifecta could occur this weekend as the Dingos ready for the HSRC 7s in conjunction with the CRCs, and then players will join the state all-star team for the RCT season.

Eight players are graduating and the majority are playing in college. Fabrizio’s heading to North Carolina for Queens University of Charlotte, which is joining NIRA this season. Pagel will relocated to St. Charles, Mo., to join Lindenwood University, the current DI Elite 15s and Elite 7s national champion. Hiller and Meg Reichenbacher will stay local with Temple University, and Faith Morley will become a Golden Ram at varsity West Chester University.

Fell will miss these influential players but noted a strong, talented group of rising seniors who will prevent any drop-off in performance. As for Fell, he told players that he’ll be coaching into the foreseeable future, and is looking forward to restarting it all in the fall.

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