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Eagle HS is the 2024 Single-School 15s Champ

  • 19 May 2024
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Eagle HS rugby

Two years ago, the Eagle Lady Mustangs attended their first Girls’ High School 15s National Tournament and finished 3rd overall. That outing proved to the Boise, Idaho, program that it belonged on the national stage. Now, after this weekend’s tournament in Madison, Wis., Eagle High School and its DI championship title are informing the nation on the new standard.

RELATED: Lots of HS National Photos

Eagle was the breakout team of 2022 nationals  and the USA Pathway teams and NCAA varsity programs quickly took notice. At that event, the Mustangs dropped a 19-7 semifinal to eventual champion Divine Savior Holy Angels (DSHA).

“The first year we played them, we had this idea of: If we just had 10 more minutes, that game would’ve been different,” Eagle HS head coach Kraig Smikel said. “And we really believed that.”

 

In 2023, Eagle lost a heartbreaker to Catholic Memorial in a quarterfinal that went to overtime kicks. The Mustangs finished 5th and 2-1 overall. Meanwhile, fellow Idahoans Rocky Mountain finished 2nd, falling to DSHA in the final. In 2024, Meridian joined the growing list of Idaho’s national championship-vying teams, while Eagle made its third trip with the momentum of a recent Idaho 15s championship behind it. It was a decisive title win (52-24) against Rocky Mountain (which ended up having to drop from club 15s nationals due to injuries) and an assertion that Eagle was back to form.

Eagle still has a good group of players who competed at 2022 and 2023 nationals – seniors like Jordynn LeBeau, Karlee Arlington and Alison Blackburn, and juniors Hailey Mills and Christina and Madison Cerda, among many others. That’s a nice core of experience and leadership.

“We always talk about how there aren’t really individuals on this team; that we’re a family, and that’s how we’re going to be successful,” Smikel said. “They all bought in and started building this culture of how we want to be. We’ve had our ups and downs, like any other team, but to rise to this point, it’s been years of hard work for them.”

 

Eagle HS rugby

Jordynn LeBeau / Photo: Jackie Finlan / TRB

That programmatic knowledge of nationals expanded this year, as Eagle brought its JV side for the Division II competition as well. It was one of three teams – DSHA and Columbia Central being the others – to travel with and enter two sides in a national competition, which is just tremendous and speaks to the real success of a program.

“Honestly, it pays dividends at the end of the day,” Smikel said of the massive trip. “On these trips, they all come together and hang out more than what they do at school or at home, because you’re kind of stuck with each other. But the best part for [the JV team] is they got to compete out here. They got to see the level of competition and it gives them something to strive for.”

The Eagle JV team had just one sub but finished 3rd overall in Division II, dropping a 7-5 contest to eventual champion Hamilton, and beating Hononegah 50-0 and Columbia Central JV 35-5. The teams were each other’s best built-in cheering section, which was especially welcomed during the final.

 

Eagle HS rugby

Photo: Jackie Finlan / TRB

Eagle started its 2024 nationals campaign with a 24-7 quarterfinal win against DSHA JV. While it might seem strange to see a JV team in Division I, the Dashers’ second side was quite successful this year and actually qualified for the Wisconsin state championship. It withdrew from that match but also proved itself at the Midwest High School 15s Championship.

QUARTERFINALS
Meridian 24-7 Catholic Memorial
DSHA 78-0 Grandville
Columbia Central 29-24 Warsaw
Eagle 24-7 DSHA JV

The tensest of the quarterfinals occurred between Columbia Central and Warsaw. The latter was leading 24-17, but then a penalty try (24-24) and last-second score put the Tigers into semifinals. Warsaw experienced similar heartache when DSHA JV scored on the final play of the game to win their 5th place semifinal by one point.

 

Eagle HS rugby

Photo: Jackie Finlan / TRB

Eagle won its semifinal against Columbia Central comfortably, 36-0, and came very close to facing nationals first-timer Meridian in the final.

“I’m really close with the Meridian staff. We all kind of work together with things,” Smikel said. “I have the upmost respect for their coaches. Jared Turner, he’s this dad who didn’t know anything about rugby but stepped in when the program was falling apart. He’s built that program up.

“It was exciting to come out here and see them perform the way that they did,” the coach continued. “I kept telling them, ‘Trust me, you’re going to be competitive,’ and they showed it.”

Meridian flyhalf Addy Dunn returned an intercept for a centered try. The conversion bounced off the upright, as did the penalty kick attempt in the second half. DSHA scored a try and Evie Couffou nailed the off-center conversion for the 7-5 win.

 

Eagle HS rugby

Karlee Allington / Photo: Jackie Finlan / TRB

SEMIFINALS
SF: DSHA 7-5 Meridian
SF: Eagle 36-0 Columbia Central
5th SF: Catholic Memorial 66-3 Grandville
5th SF: DSHA JV 25-24 Warsaw

That set up an Eagle vs. DSHA final for Sunday.

“Yeah, it’s important,” Smikel said of facing DSHA for the trophy. “That’s who we’ve wanted for three years now. We were definitely rooting for Meridian – the Idaho love – but it was really important to see DSHA. The girls who lost to them in our first nationals, they wanted to get that one back. It’s one thing we’ve been talking about, just overcoming those boogeymen, and DSHA was that boogeyman we had to get off our backs.”

DSHA was the first to score. After a series of a penalties and the superb boot of inside center Flannery O’Keef relocating play in advantageous territory, O’Keef herself scored in the corner, 5-0.

 

DSHA's Flannery O'Keef rugby

DSHA’s Flannery O’Keef / Photo: Jackie Finlan

But as is the mark of any good team, Eagle answered back immediately. The Mustangs do a really good job of moving the ball quickly in the right parts of the field, and flyhalf Arlington is the conductor there. Just nice crisp passes, and always a threat to run as well. There was a pretty big speed mismatch for Kanani Watts to expose along the sideline. By day’s end, the sophomore scored three tries, two in the first half. Junior outside center Kylie Heichman, who was previously a place kicker for the football team, added a conversion for the 12-5 halftime lead.

After the break, three yellow cards were awarded in the opening 10 minutes of play — two to DSHA, one to Eagle. The first two were dangerous contact, and the third was a repeated infringement. Eagle knew when to be go fast from the penalty mark and caught DSHA not retreating and making the tackle within that 10-meter cushion. LeBeau orchestrated the yellow-card advantage and overall was a great power carrier and set-up player.

 

Eagle HS rugby

Photo: Jackie Finlan/TRB

DSHA had a stronger kicking game and did well to release pressure with a booming shot downfield. Sophomore inside center Ella Elordi chased it down and crucially got back to her feet after the tackle to prevent the poach. Tall and strong — and massive in contact — Elordi wrestled off the defense until support arrived and could get in some phases. LeBeau eventually burst through the middle to relieve pressure and connected with on-flowing support before the ball moved to the superior back-three speed. Watts finished it off for the try, 17-5.

There was still plenty of time to play, but Eagle showed no signs of fatigue. Another DSHA kick ahead from the 50 put the Mustangs into retreat, but Watts was on the chase and made the defense pay. So slight but slippery, the wing danced through would-be tacklers and just beat everyone for the try. Heichman converted for what would be the final points of the day: 24-5 the final.

 

Eagle HS rugby

Photo: Jackie Finlan/TRB

“I don’t know what to say. It’s surreal,” Smikel said of being number one. “It’s a lot of work and there are times when you ask yourself, ‘Is it all worth it? All the work?’ But moments like this, I’ll never forget it, and it’s totally worth it.”

Eagle High School is the new champion and the first out of Idaho, a state that is really standing up for itself these past few years. The Mustangs brought attention to the concentration of excellent 15s rugby happening in and around Boise, and then Rocky Mountain and now 2024 breakout Meridian, which finished 3rd overall, are intensifying that focus. Teams play school-sanctioned 7s in the fall, and Division I (6 teams) and Division II (9 teams) 15s in the spring. That’s a lot of rugby and in a relatively concentrated area. Things are looking good in Idaho.

FINALS
7th: Warsaw 44-24 Grandville
5th: Catholic Memorial 27-0 DSHA JV
3rd: Meridian 39-7 Columbia Central
Championship: Eagle 24-5 DSHA

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HIGH SCHOOL