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Fallbrook Back to Form

  • 27 Feb 2019

All photos: Jeff Pack

An influential player block graduates, a head coach retires, the competitive landscape shifts. Any number of factors can see a team – even an established, successful, well structured program – step back and reset. And that’s O.K., so long as the support systems remain, the team continues to exist and play, and the members themselves find joy in the game.

That was Fallbrook High School last season. After years as a SoCal and National Invitational Tournament (NIT) champion or contender, and after years of sending players to the collegiate varsity, All-American and USA teams, the Warriors found themselves with low numbers in fall 2017. As SoCal started restructuring the age-grade competitions, Fallbrook couldn’t commit to the high school-only 15s season, and played 7s instead. The team opted out of the 2018 Tennessee NIT and instead treated the NorCal Invitational as its “nationals.” The U18 squad made it to the semifinals … but the middle school team won its division.

Today, a core group of those middle schoolers are up in the high school ranks, and they bring some connective tissue with them. Numbers rebounded and Fallbrook returned for year two of the SoCal High School 15s league. There were four teams again, as Poway dropped down to the high school 7s league, which runs alongside the 15s league.

Fallbrook won the 2019 15s title with a 90-0 win over Torrey Pines.

Photo: Jeff Pack

“That’s a big score,” Fallbrook head coach Craig Pinnell grimaced.

But there are general growing pains gripping Southern California right now as new CEO Giovanni Vaglietti is attempting to structure and build clarity under a long-term vision for age-grade rugby in the region.

“These programs – at least Rancho Bernardo and Torrey Pines – are doing fairly well with good coaching structures in there,” said Pinnell. “They just need more game time and more of a pre-season. That’s important, so the young players know what 15s looks like. … But I would prefer to play in this division in 15s than go back to a 7s division.”

Photo: Jeff Pack

Pinnell, too, is adjusting to a new role, one without co-coach and wife Marin, who retired this year to spend more time with the couple’s young daughter. While he was starting a new job at a middle school in Camp Pendleton, he continued to lean on assistant and parent John Duncan, as well as alumnae who return to help.

Pinnell points to captain Nathalie Celis for on-field leadership. She’s small but fills that flanker role well. She “has an engine that never stops,” according to Pinnell, has a good step, and is a true lead-by-example player. Freshman Tiahna Padilla is second in charge. She came up through the system, starting with the U10s, and has been running the back line from flyhalf. She’s got a good rugby brain and poised for a big step.

Photo: Jeff Pack

And watch for Julia Tippin, the blindside flanker. She was part of that middle school group with Padilla that won the NorCal Invitational. Pinnell praised her strong tackling ability and reliable work rate, and looks forward to her response against better opposition.

Overall it’s a pretty new group, one that lacks individual stars but excels as a team. It’s also matured from the less competitive vibe that marked last year’s regrouping phase.

“Last year they were in that space but this year they’ve moved on and are a little hungrier,” Pinnell said. “They want more out of it, and now they see they can play rugby together and want to see where they can go with it.”

Photo: Jeff Pack

There’s a quick break in the SoCal season as teams ready for the Las Vegas Invitational. Fallbrook is taking three teams and quickly cramming in the 7s practices. When the Warriors return home, SoCal will be into its High School Club season, and Fallbrook will absorb 4-5 players from other schools. Sevens teams like Carson High School – which would have been the SoCal High School 7s champion hadn’t the tournament been rained out (more on that to come) – essentially morph into South Bay. According to Vaglietti, approximately 50% of SoCal high schoolers participate in both the high school and club seasons.

This competition set-up has been a work in progress, but it has strong intention, and is something in which Fallbrook is deeply invested. Part two of this interview (combined with comments from Vaglietti and SoCal Youth President David Pool) will look deeper into how SoCal is looking to build its age grade rugby.

Photo: Jeff Pack

In addition to two competitive blocks of 15s, Fallbrook will also compete at the Fullerton Invitational, host Canadian school Branford from Ontario, and return to the NorCal Invitational – which will be the litmus test.

“That sets us up for NITs,” Pinnell said of the Salt Lake City location (single schools are in Glendale the same May weekend). “We can see where we are. It’ll be fun with this group. We might not have the highest skill, but they have fun playing the game.”

So with the exception of the LVI, Fallbrook’s high school and club teams are playing 15s during the school year, then picking up 7s in the summer. More to come.

Photo: Jeff Pack
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