Photo: Stacey Savin
Fallbrook returns to the High School Club National Invitational Tournament (NIT) after a year’s hiatus and does so as the current Southern California U18 15s champion. The Warriors are coming off a reaffirming win against South Bay, which had defeated the fellow SoCal side in the NorCal Invitational final approximately a month prior.
Fallbrook and South Bay are dominant forces in SoCal and they traded tournament titles this spring. The Warriors won the early-season Fullerton Invitational and then the Spartans took the NorCal Invitational in mid-April.
“We’ve put in a lot work since NorCal,” Fallbrook head coach Craig Pinnell said. “As a group we were really determined and dedicated to making that result successful on Saturday.”
In particular Fallbrook worked on the breakdown and injected some defense and attack options to keep it fresh.
“We understand that South Bay is one of those big bashing teams that we will come at you from all over the field. Big runners who hit you as hard as they can and hope that will open up the space, and if not, then they’ll play off the second phase,” Pinnell said. “We don’t focus on what teams are doing but more on controlling the game at the breakdown and letting the defense do the work, which opens up the attack or makes mistakes for them.”
Leading the way is captain and flanker Nathalie Celis, who is small physically but launches full tilt in and out of contact.
“She’s got good feet on her. She can step and swerve and leads the defense well. When she’s in attack mode she can move in and out of those spaces. She definitely leads by example,” Pinnell said. “Our other flanker, Julia Tippin, is good, too. They make a good pair and work well in those spaces. We have pretty good locks and a hooker – good at the breakdown as far as rucking goes, and that helps a lot. The combinations are working well together at the moment.”
Both teams were missing an influential player during the SoCal final – Fallbrook’s Abbey Savin and South Bay’s Puni Skipps – who were with the Girls’ High School All-Americans in Canada. But it all came together for the Warriors, who took home the trophy after a 22-5 win.
“The biggest thing that came out of that game was the confidence levels went up,” Pinnell said. “They saw for themselves, if you put in the work and don’t shy away from contact, you can do it. They showed each other that, that you can be successful in the tackle situation or that breakdown against a bigger team. Just because someone is bigger or stronger or runs harder, doesn’t mean you can’t compete.”
That confidence is particularly valuable given the lineup at NITs. Fallbrook has powerful opponents in Kahuku High School, Sacramento and Lamorinda. And while Pinnell confirmed that the team talks about it often – that Fallbrook is generally smaller than its opponents – only three current players have competed at NITs before.
“We’re really young. Nine of the 24 players we’re taking have U15 waivers. We have five seniors, two of which are starters,” Pinnell said. “There’s experience in those younger ones, though. They’ve been playing rugby for a while, came up through Fallbrook’s age grade teams. They’re in high school as ninth graders but they are leaders on the team.”
Players like Celis and Savin will serve as resources in terms of what to expect at NITs, but the NorCal Invitational was a useful fixture in terms of introducing newcomers to big competition in a big weekend. The team, and likely other teams, won’t necessarily be prepared for the format. Teams are grouped in pools of four and will play three shortened games. Then the top teams from each pool will play for first, the second-place teams for third, and so on. But that does mean that teams’ fourth game (the placing games) will only be 45 minutes long, as opposed to 70. That affects strategy, especially if a smaller, fitter team is looking to outrun its opposition.
For schedule information, visit https://www.utahyouthrugby.org/2019nhsgcrc